Repression never hurt so good as it does in “On Chesil Beach,” an indie drama casting Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as dewy honeymooners in 1962 England who sweetly struggle to consummate their relationship. Veteran London theater director Dominic Cooke (the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown”) and acclaimed novelist Ian McEwan adapt the fractured-narrative feature from McEwan’s book, enhancing the elegant prose with additional bits of rich characterization and handsomely shot scenery.
Howle, recently seen in “Dunkirk” channeling Michael York, here endures a different sort of coastal suspense as Edward Mayhew, a country-bred sensitive soul given to bird watching and the rare fit of righteous anger. He’s apparently found a perfect match in his luminous new bride, the former Florence Ponting (Ronan, back with Howle on the heels of “The Seagull,” and back in McEwan territory a full decade after “Atonement”). Both display proper grown-up approval of — or young lovers’ sunny obliviousness to — their classically British resort, with its faded hotel and rocky, gray-skied shore. And both are hopelessly, virginally anxious about finally being “free with each other,” all leg jitters and nervous glances toward bed.
A series of chronologically scattered flashbacks makes clear the depth of the couple’s compatibility. It’s love at first sight, of course, when they meet at university, as passionate about each other as about her violin playing and his history studies. But it’s more than this. Edward comes from a family whose offbeat character is the sad result of an accident suffered by his mother (Anne-Marie Duff), a circumstance that Florence greets with such graceful compassion that Edward’s father (Adrian Scarborough) is ready to pop the question for him. Florence also supportively turns a deaf ear toward her own parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) and their haughty carping about Edward’s humble background. The snobs might not see the adoration that’s in his eyes when he looks at her, but she does.
It’s surprising, really, that Florence and Edward have such awkwardness to get past on their wedding night, genetically imprinted social decorum or no. There’s an explanation — along with far-reaching emotional repercussions — but nothing you’d likely ever guess.
The filmmakers and their charmingly sympathetic leads leave us with a picture of connubial needs and desires which, while maybe improbable, conjures up all the absorbing wistfulness of a classic weepie. It’s to the story’s benefit, ultimately, that what happens on Chesil Beach stays on Chesil Beach.
ON CHESIL BEACH
Directed by Dominic Cooke. Written by Ian McEwan, based on his novel. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Emily Watson. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 110 min. R (nudity, sexual situations, language, some violence).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.