Movie review: Marriage goes bad, quickly 'On Chesil Beach'

'Lady Bird' to the rescue? Not this time, as not even Saoirse Ronan can save this hopeless period drama

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A strongly acted, but middling love story about the fear of intimacy and its sources, "On Chesil Beach" is as rocky as the strip of beach for which it's named. 

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Billy Howle (right) star in "On Chesil Beach."

It's a bummer because the great Saoirse Ronan, coming off of "Lady Bird," isn't able to rescue this feckless, would-be prestige drama from itself. She does have one excellent scene -- the three-time Oscar nominee is guaranteed to give you that much -- but otherwise this trek to the beach isn't worth the trip. 

It's 1962. Ronan plays Florence, whom we catch up with on her rather disastrous wedding day to her hubby, Edward (Billy Howle). The newlyweds are in a lovely hotel suite on Chesil Beach, along England's south coast, and it's time to consummate the marriage. And in painstaking detail, we learn that neither of them have any idea what they're doing, sexually.  

Their courtship and select moments from their past are replayed in ping-ponging flashback sequences. Florence is from a well-off family, but is "the squarest person in all of Western civilization" in Edward's estimation. She's in a string quartet and dreams of playing the classics in a great concert hall. He has a mentally ill mother, who's prone to random episodes of toplessness. Together, they don't stand a chance. 

Things quickly unravel, and Florence suggests an open relationship, since she's just not that into sex. It doesn't go well. Neither does the movie, which catches up with the characters years down the road, in a couple of scenes marked by bad wigs and aging makeup that distracts from everything else on screen.  

Adapted from Ian McEwan's novel, "On Chesil Beach" clumsily deals with the issues it addresses. Like the couple at its center, it should have never made it down the aisle.

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'On Chesil Beach'


Rated R for some sexual content and nudity

Running time: 110 minutes