Film review: Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle an attractive pairing in On Chesil Beach

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are impeccably cast as virginal newlyweds in Ian McEwan's adaptation of his Booker Prize-nominated story of doomed love, On Chesil Beach. It's a film that comes impressively close to capturing the novella's quiet intensity, writes Damon Smith

Three-times Oscar nominated Irish actress Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach

SOME of the most important relationships in our lives are galvanised by seizing the right words to express an invisible churn of conflicting emotions.

Other relationships fracture and ultimately implode in agonising, awkward silences between friends and partners, who are afraid to acknowledge that burning desires now run, at best, lukewarm.

Published in 2007, Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach is an astonishingly moving portrait of doomed love, set against the ravishing backdrop of the titular stretch of shingle in Dorset.

It's a heartbreaking read that generates one sobering emotional crescendo after another, like waves crashing against a forlorn shore.

McEwan has skillfully adapted his Booker Prize-nominated work and the film, directed by Dominic Cooke, comes impressively close to capturing the quiet, body-shuddering intensity that transfers from the page into the tear-filled mind's eye.

Three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are impeccably cast as trembling virginal newlyweds, who are ill-equipped to navigate the minefields of each other's insecurities and sensitively handled intimations of sexual abuse by one parent.

There is a tragic inevitability to the trajectory of the couple's fragile relationship, and a quiet devastation shared by us and the characters as awkwardness, shame and incomprehension press a self-destruct button, inflicting deep wounds that will never heal.

Gifted violinist Florence Ponting (Ronan) and history graduate Edward Mayhew (Howle) prepare to spend their first night together as husband and wife in a hotel located close to Chesil Beach.

The sound of lapping waves drifts in through billowing curtains as the couple unpacks. Waiters arrive to serve dinner in Florence and Edward's room.

"We do the silver service on the beef, sir, and then we retire," one waiter explains, apologetically.

As the afternoon bleeds into evening, a mosaic of flashbacks illuminates the couple's radically different backgrounds.

While the bride is at the mercy of strict moral codes of the era, upheld by her mother Violet (Emily Watson) and father Geoffrey (Samuel West), the groom draws on his relationship with his "brain-damaged" mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) to embrace his passions.

Tension in the room builds gradually to the moment Florence and Edward must consummate their marriage.

"Tell me about the last time you got into a fight," she asks by way of a temporary reprieve from his seduction. "I need to know your worst side."

On Chesil Beach is an artfully composed character study of youthful naivete and small, telling gestures such as Florence's flinch when one particular hand touches her shoulder.

Ronan and Howle are an attractive pairing and Watson, Duff and West provide sterling support in small yet pivotal roles.

"I am... most terribly sorry..." whispers Florence as she fumbles for the right words – no, any words – to soothe her spouse.

Cooke's film elegantly reveals the chinks of pain and regret in each stuttering syllable.

ON CHESIL BEACH (15, 110 mins) Drama/Romance. Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duff. Director: Dominic Cooke.

RATING: 8/10

Released: May 18 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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