As entertainment, “On Chesil Beach” isn’t remotely satisfying, but it does deserve credit for being weird. For much of its running time, it seems like a bad version of a certain kind of lifeless British movie, but it’s not that at all. It’s a completely original kind of lifeless British movie, which makes it worthy of grudging respect and mild amazement.
Most of the film takes place on a single day in 1962, with a generous assortment of flashbacks thrown in. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) have just been married, and now they’re in the bridal suite for the big night. They start kissing, but they don’t get very far, because that’s when the movie starts in with the flashbacks.
Here’s the first sign of strangeness. The movie has a fractured narrative, but the fractures are most often prompted by the characters themselves. That is, just when they start cuddling and canoodling, one of them will suddenly bring up some event in the past. Whereupon, the movie will, dutifully, go back in time to show us whatever they’re referring to.
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, and adapted by McEwan himself, the movie seems to be making a statement about sex in the days before nice people ever talked about it. As a result of growing up in a repressed environment, these two are not only virgins. They’re sexual ignoramuses. Yet you would think that two attractive and attracted young people might figure things out, or at least fumble along in a jolly way.
Director Dominic Cooke doesn’t tip his hand. He’s a highly successful theatrical director who has also done a fair amount of TV. “On Chesil Beach” is his first feature film, and yet it’s hard to imagine such a seasoned director being so intimidated by the new medium that he would turn in a film that’s accidentally devoid of intention, purpose, meaning or inflection. No, this had to be intentionally and purposefully without meaning or inflection. But why?
Throughout, but especially in the first half, the soundtrack is sprinkled with liberal doses of early rock ‘n’ roll. This becomes more and more discordant, something like listening to Little Richard sing “Ready Teddy” while gazing at the lunar surface.
‘On Chesil Beach’
Rated R for some sexual content and nudity.