It’s been over ten years since Saoirse Ronan received her first Oscar nomination for Atonement, and now she is starring in another adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel, but On Chesil Beach struggles to deliver the same narrative punch. The story centers around a scene that does not go anywhere for nearly the entire running time, purposely so, but because it takes so long to reveal the why behind its core of frustration, the film is just as lifeless as the situation it portrays. The focus is the wedding night between Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) at a hotel along the titular seashore. Their attempts at intimacy are glancing and awkward; they are so unsure of themselves that they do not even know if they should ask the room service attendants to stay or leave while they eat their first dinner as husband and wife.

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There is plenty worthwhile to examine in the setup of a newly married couple who are too emotionally scattered to consummate their relationship. Surely, people in real-life arranged marriages have faced such challenges. But what is confusing is that Florence and Edward are far from strangers. As flashbacks demonstrate, they have in fact had quite the charming courtship. They both have had turmoil in their personal lives – his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) suffers from chronic cognitive issues following an accident, she endured a restrictive upbringing – but their union feels built on genuine attraction as opposed to an attempt to escape their respective pain. So as they struggle to properly take their clothes off, it is clear that there must be some secret we are not being told. But since it takes forever to even give us a hint of what that may be, On Chesil Beach remains stuck for so long in a gear of profoundly dramatically inert.

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When a past trauma is finally revealed, everything clicks into place, but it is far from enough to make up for the stock of impatience that has been building. A final act that transports everyone a few decades forward offers up a different, much more dynamic movie that could have been. Appropriately enough, it is about lamenting a past that could have been, and this conclusion nails the right level of melancholy bittersweetness. In a romantic relationship, it is almost certainly a bad idea to call your partner withholding, which Edward does to Florence at the peak of his frustration. But when it comes to a viewer’s relationship to a movie, it is fair to demand minimal withholding; On Chesil Beach only offers some relief, once it finally manages to be forthright.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough

Director: Dominic Cooke

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Awkward, Unpredictable, Wincing Sexuality

Release Date: May 18, 2018 (Limited)

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