Based on a 2007 novella by Ian McEwan, the melancholic "On Chesil Beach" follows newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) during their disastrous first night together as man and wife, at a seaside hotel in Southern England in 1962.
With a narrative taking place over the course of just a few hours and mostly confined to a single room, first-time director Dominic Cooke does his best to open things up, incorporating flashbacks to the couple's courtship and divergent backgrounds. She's a classical violinist from a wealthy, upper-class family; he's a history student with a strained home life due to his mother's brain damage.
Having the misfortune to have come of age in a country barely on the cusp of the sexual revolution, Florence and Edward are both virgins on their wedding night, and the emotional repression of their upbringings have left them unprepared to deal with the intimacy that a marriage requires to survive. Without the ability to express their needs or feelings, they struggle to consummate the marriage, leading to long-lasting consequences on both their lives.
Ronan and Howle are lovely together (and can be seen together again in the Chekhov adaptation, "The Seagull," out this Friday), but their performances can't distract from the sense that this is a story that worked better on the page. Cooke stays determinedly faithful to the source material, but once we get to the film's overwrought third act, when the story jumps forward several decades (and subjecting us to the sight of Ronan and Howle in some unfortunate old age makeup), the story has drowned under the weight of its good intentions.