The British theatre director Dominic Cooke makes his film debut with On Chesil Beach, a 60s-set drama adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) is rich and Edward (Billy Howle) is poor, but when they lock eyes at a activist meeting, it’s all over. The movie ping-pongs between their respective youths and their first night as marrieds working up to having sex for the first time. Though Ronan is clearly the star here—and it turns out Florence has the much more interesting story—Cooke and McEwan are more invested in Edward’s journey, which would be much more empathetic if he weren’t such a know-it-all.
Ronan is coming off her Academy Award-nominated turn in Lady Bird here yet cedes, by default, most of the movie to Howle, who has mostly UK TV credits to his name. Sean Bobbitt’s beautiful cinematography—he also shot The Place Beyond the Pines and 12 Years A Slave—frames the fields and oceans wide and sharp, and the indoor conversations close and uncomfortable: Florence is scared of physical intimacy for reasons beyond being a virgin bride, but the film lets them go by in a flash, unconsidered, choosing instead to follow Edward through the 70s and into old age. This—and the accompanying makeup on the very young actors—is a disappointing misstep in an otherwise lovely, slow-burning drama.