TIFF Review: Marriage Is a Rocky Road in Dominic Cooke’s Uneven ‘On Chesil Beach’

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2017 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Adapted from an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel (“Atonement”), set in 1960s Britain, and starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan, “On Chesil Beach” has all the makings of a classic “prestige” period film. That it centers around a prickly romance also promises rich dramatic potential. But while “On Chesil Beach” offers the conventional pleasures of an engaging story and handsome production values and actors, this debut feature from Dominic Cooke falls short of its potential.

“On Chesil Beach” refers to the honeymoon location of young newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle). Recently graduated from different universities, they met by chance and fell in love. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, however, with Florence’s family representing the upper middle class that looks down on people of Edward’s more humble status. The unlikely pair has opposing personalities as well, with Florence’s upbringing instilling in her an assured refinement that contrasts Edward’s uncultured mentality and awkward demeanor. Despite this – and Florence’s parents’ disapproval – the two lovers develop a companionship that leads them to marriage. But on the first day of their honeymoon, secrets come to the forefront that threatens the viability of their long-term commitment.

It is soon revealed that Florence and Edward are both virgins, as a result of their sheltered lives as well as the constraints of their conservative society. To make matters worse, Edward is far more eager to consummate the marriage. The marriage bed looms like an elephant in the room, as the fairy tale promise of young love gradually turns into a nightmare.

As you might expect, their slow journey to the bedroom is filled with cringe-worthy awkwardness. But their subsequent interactions are not the amusing fumbles of coming-of-age comedies. Instead, Cooke perfectly captures – in collaboration with Howle and Ronan’s sympathetic performances – the atmosphere of trepidation that defines this relationship. It comes as no surprise that Cooke’s background is in theater, as he directs these confined scenes with acute intensity.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently diverts the story away from the gripping chamber drama at the heart of the film. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Florence and Edward’s academic and personal interests, family perspectives, and the circumstances that led them to their fateful honeymoon. But while these scenes provide necessary character development, Cooke struggles to instill them with the required tension. The underlying class conflict remains surface-level, particularly in relation to Edward’s family. Anne-Marie Duff makes a strong impression as Edward’s brain-damaged mother, but her role ultimately feels inconsequential.

When the story goes back to Chesil Beach, however, it is fully compelling. The final act is especially devastating, as it digs into even deeper issues than the couple’s virginal inexperience. But ultimately, there isn’t enough of that exciting “kitchen sink” messiness in this otherwise conventional “prestige” drama.

GRADE: (★★★)

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |

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