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'On Chesil Beach' takes an unflinching look at the idea of marriage

There's nothing fancy about love, and that's how Cooke and McEwan treat the characters. Unlike most creators, they won't cater to how the audience wants a story to end. Their biggest concerns are staying true to the characters they created.
Lionsgate Films

What is a marriage without intimacy?

Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) are newlyweds spending their big night on a romantic island called Chesil Beach. For most couples, this would represent the most exotic getaway, like climbing into a painting and escaping the rigors of the world. For Edward and Florence, it becomes a trial by fire where their past, present, and proposed future will be dissected and observed, by the presence of a bed.

In other words, they have a big fight that brings to light a lot of uncomfortable truths about how men, women, marriage and sex are supposed to go together — and what happens when the spark just isn't there.

Welcome to On Chesil Beach, a challenging and heartfelt film that should get you talking. It will break your heart but show you how to put it back together after the lights come up.

It's always a trustworthy sign when you see a book adapted for the big screen by the same person. Ian McEwan wrote the bittersweet love story in 2007, and it's his hands on the screenplay that first time director Dominic Cooke places a classy touch on for the theater version. Taking a story from the page to the visual screen is never a bumpy road, but with a tale like this, the director can manage the ride even with bald tires.

It helps that the actors bring their potent A-game to the screen. Ronan just dazzled us with her witty portrayal of teenage rebellion in Greta Gerwig's Oscar darling, Lady Bird, and captured our hearts with the enigmatic love story, Brooklyn, as well as Atonement. Here, she settles easily into Florence's habitat, a woman defined by her past, which included a fairly conventional and strict upbringing.

Florence's upbringing clashes with the unconventional past of Edward, who is besieged with innocence by Howle, who looks like the long lost brother of Daniel Bruhl. While Edward has plenty of dialogue, Howle's best moments are when he lets his highly expressive face do some of the heavy lifting, especially in the second half of the film. You may know and adore Ronan, but you'll leave wanting to see more of Howle. He carries the final third of the film, when all the weight of the film's big themes start to settle.

You see, Florence grew up where the grass grew nearly as tall as the money that it surrounded, while Edward was riddled with an overworked father and two sisters who had to help with a mother struggling with brain damage. He's more dirt-under-his-fingernails, but has a love for history, music and wildlife. In a way, he's a Wilbury cut off from his band of rebels, trying to track down innocence.

He found it in Florence, a classical violinist who dreams of playing in the neighborhood theater and making it as a musician. While the film takes off on their awkwardly cluttered wedding night, the story takes us back to their upbringing and shows us not only how they, but also how they grew closer together.

Everything comes to a head at Chesil Beach. If you think you know where it's going from the trailer, think again. This isn't Desperate Housewives, 1962 edition. What transpires between Edward and Florence that night will define the rest of their lives, and the film does a great job of keeping you off balance during the first hour before anything big happens.

For me, a late scene between an older man at a record shop and a young girl who seems overly familiar broke my heart, and this is where Howle's restrained and understated approach paid off so well. In this short scene, the entire movie floods over your emotions. You won't understand heartache until you watch this movie.

I respect On Chesil Beach's brave storytelling and the ability to ignite a conversation about how sexual desires played out back in the 1960's and the effect it could have on a couple people from different backgrounds. This is the kind of story and film that McEwan needed to write, the kind of tale a scribe must get out of his head. It's also the perfect fodder for a romantic drama on the big screen.

There's nothing fancy about love, and that's how Cooke and McEwan treat the characters. Unlike most creators, they won't cater to how the audience wants a story to end. Their biggest concerns are staying true to the characters they created. I respected the bravery of this film, even if a late moment gave me an urge to reconsider.

The way the film balances a rock n' roll soundtrack, which is Edward's speed for life, to the classical and restrained music, which is what defines Florence, is extremely well done.

Life is defined by choice, but can be triggered by desire. Your need to want something will force a decision to be made going one way or another. I liked how On Chesil Beach got me thinking about choice, marriage, and the effect it can have on a life 10, 20, or even 40 years later.

An unconventional love story that spans nearly 45+ years, On Chesil Beach will challenge you, provoke a reaction, and start a conversation about what a marriage could-and could not-live without.

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