'On Chesil Beach' film review: Saoirse Ronan wasted in an uneven drama
Not even a wonderful Saoirse Ronan performance, some incredible cinematography and an unconventional story framework saves the British drama "On Chesil Beach" (openings in Seattle theaters June 1) from being completely forgettable.
In short: As young newlyweds Florence and Edward (Ronan and Billy Howle) prepare for their first intimate night of their honeymoon, they recall how their relationship started.
The conceit of "Chesil" is its layering of the honeymoon as a means of triggering a series of flashbacks, chronicling Florence and Edward's courtship. At one point, Florence recalls a memory - in a scene that is itself already a memory: so a memory nested within another memory. The flashbacks (generally) progress in chronological order, allowing the film to recap months of dating and engagement, set against the framework of a single late afternoon in southern England. Were it not for this unconventional narrative structure, "Chesil" would be pretty unremarkable love story between a couple from different backgrounds.
Aside from the upfront reveal that Florence and Edward eventually marry, the film never indicates quite where the story is headed. It leaves the audience always wondering "where is this going?" This ambiguity leaves the film and its characters without a clear direction - so the stakes are vague. This lack of clarity, in turn, leaves the audience without any reference points: it's difficult to discern how much - if any - progress is being made by the characters. This results in a less-than-two hour long movie that feels much, much longer.
The script loosely plays with time, alternating between the story of a young couple's courtship and their disastrous wedding night. The problem is "Chesil" is two halves of a story that theoretically tell one love story - but the intertwining flashback and present threads are unbalanced. By the time "Chesil Beach" does finally form something resembling a direction, the film converges to a point - and a decision. Thankfully, this conflict and the ensuing actions of Florence and Edward are at least rooted in all the preceding flashbacks. That said, while the honeymoon scenes set in the present compels the story forward, the flashbacks seem to exist only to barely justify a dramatic tension between Florence and Edward.
Without any judgement of the nature of the divide between Florence and Edward, the main problem with this film's ending is that it's not really the movie's ending. While the character's conflicts make sense and that story comes to a resolution, the film keeps going for another 20 minutes in what can best be described as a drawn-out epilogue. This pointless extra ending is rushed and feels tacked on. What's worse, its beats are predictable, rendering this finale not quite as poignant as attempted.
For what it is worth, Ronan and Howle are quite good in their roles of the uptight violinist and her country bumpkin boyfriend. Individually they flesh out their characters and together they share an endearing chemistry. Their performances are one of the few undeniable strengths of an otherwise uneven film. Academy Award nominee Ronan does her best to put the film on her back, but its needlessly convoluted storytelling and clunky ending weigh "Chesil" down.
For a pretty straightforward British drama, "Chesil" has some uncommonly strong cinematography thanks to Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave" and "The Place Beyond the Pines"). Several key moments are framed brilliantly - with the final closing shot is worthy of framing.
Final verdict: "Chesil" has its moments, but they're too few to consider this drama effective as a whole.
"On Chesil Beach" screened during the 44th Seattle International Film Festival and opens in theaters June 1. The dramatic romance has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R for some sexual content and nudity.