What does it look like when stiff upper lips kiss? In the history of cinema, David Lean’s 1945 “Brief Encounter” stands apart — indeed, virtually alone — in elevating two painfully civilized and polite British lovers into an image of the purest romantic ardor. But now “Brief Encounter” has company.
“On Chesil Beach,” which premiered on opening day of the Toronto film festival, is an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella about two young Brits on their honeymoon in 1962, and it’s a lyrical and rapturous film — a repressed passion play, funny, delicate and heartbreaking. It has an intoxicating quality of emotional wonder it shares with the acclaimed (but not yet released) Sundance hit “Call Me by Your Name,” as well as a talky intimacy that recalls Richard Linklater’s “Before” films. But it also has a quality all its own, a vision of love that’s shockingly old-fashioned and tinglingly audacious. “On Chesil Beach” is looking for a distributor, and with the right one it should succeed in connecting with audiences eager to experience that all-too-rare thing: a romantic drama that gets so far into the mystique of its era that it takes you somewhere you’ve never been.
The movie pairs Saoirse Ronan, who’s remarkable in it, with an up-and-coming British actor named Billy Howle, who was in “Dunkirk” (was any British actor under 30 not in “Dunkirk”?) and proves to be a fiercely charismatic and commanding talent. But the biggest news about “On Chesil Beach” may be Dominic Cooke, the 51-year-old English theater veteran who directed it. He has never made a dramatic feature before, but he’s a born filmmaker. Working from McEwan’s screenplay, Cooke has fashioned the material into a visually captivating romantic puzzle that reverberates with hope and tenderness and wistful loss. It’s telling that the film is rooted in the early-’60s gray zone — a moment lodged between the conservatism of the ’50s and the dawn of a new world — because it marks one of the most impressive debuts of a director since Tom Ford made “A Single Man.”
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It’s the summer of 1962, and Edward Mayhew (Howle), a grad student in history, is on his honeymoon with Florence Ponting (Ronan), a violinist who’s the leader of an amateur string quartet. The two have come to the Dorset seashore, alongside Chesil Beach, which includes several exotic miles in which the “sand” consists of nothing but smooth hard stones. Their modest hotel is a rather dumpy room, with a couple of waiters who practically snicker as they serve the couple watered-down wine and some depressing-looking roast beef and potatoes. At first, Edward and Florence are prim, shy, and tentative, as if this were just some bumbling early date. In a sense, it is. By contempo hook-up standards, they’ve barely been to first base. Their sheer abashedness is sweetly funny and touching, and it’s all because they’re circling around the big moment when they’ll finally go to bed with each other.
They are both virgins, yet despite some awkward moments, this is no glib comedy of sexual innocence. Ronan, in a conservative blue dress and straight light-reddish hair that frames her face like a pair of leaves, looks at Howle’s Edward with a light in her eye, and their interplay is soft, tart, delicate, devoted. For a while, the naïve erotic fumbling doesn’t seem to matter that much, because we gaze at these two and think: This is what love looks like. They’ll work it out.
The film jumps around in time, showing us who they are and how they met, and that’s when we start to fall in love with them as a couple. They’re entrancingly specific people, and what edges into our consciousness is how alike they are, in spirit and temperament, and also how different. Florence is from a proudly upscale middle-class family, led by Emily Watson as a haughty mother (the role played by her domineering father is toned down from the book). Classical music is the backbone of Florence’s existence. It’s a kind of church; it elevates her spirit. But it is also, in its very ecstasy, a form of sublimation.
Edward’s family is freer, but more messed up. His mother (Anne-Marie Duff) was brain-damaged by an accident (she was struck by the door of a moving train), and now she’s a mentally ill free spirit who sits around, doffing her clothes, painting and cooking and babbling — not quite there, yet she’s like a hippie ahead of her time. When Florence comes over, her very presence calms the family, and Edward’s father leans over to him and says, “Marry that girl.” Love is many things in “On Chesil Beach,” and one of those things is that it can save us from our families.
For a while, it’s a happy movie with a teasing mystery to it, as it churns through two lives coming together, in a period when people hadn’t yet learned to make light of their passions. Edward, the budding historian (though he’ll never make a living that way), loves Chuck Berry and has a way of getting into street fights. Howle, like the young Richard Burton, has the face of a handsome bruiser that can look stricken with longing. On the wedding night, Edward promises Florence that he won’t fight anymore, and then, at long last, the two attempt to have sex. It doesn’t turn out the way that we expect. Florence runs away, a mile down the stone beach, and makes a confession to Edward that breaks his heart.
It’s here that the movie, in its 1962 way, enters uncharted terrain. Edward can’t accept Florence’s confession, and by almost any “enlightened” standard of psychological and spiritual well-being, he’s right and she’s wrong. He’s neither a prude nor a bully; he wants to love and to be there for his wife in every way that he can. It’s she — not he — who has violated the rules. Even the Bible’s rules.
But then the film does something that’s quietly haunting. It asks us to toss away a crucial dimension of what we think we know about love, and to consider what love truly is. And we realize, stunned, that the movie has shown us what it is. It was there in the light in Saoirse Ronan’s eye; it was there in every knowing glance and expression of this couple’s communion. “On Chesil Beach” is set during a repressed time, and it’s a tale of repressed people. But what they’re keeping in check isn’t so obvious. It may be sex. But it may also be the love that can save them.