As entertainment, "On Chesil Beach" isn't remotely satisfying, but it does deserve credit for being weird.
For much of its running time, it seems like a bad version of a certain kind of lifeless British movie, but it's not that at all. It's a completely original kind of lifeless British movie, which makes it worthy of grudging respect and mild amazement.
Most of the film takes place on a single day in 1962, with a generous assortment of flashbacks thrown in to make things longer. Florence (Saoirse Ronan, who, thanks to "The Seagull," has two movies opening simultaneously) and Edward (Billy Howle) have just been married, and now they're in the bridal suite for the big night. They start kissing, but they don't get very far, because that's when the movie starts in with the flashbacks.
Here's the first sign of strangeness. The movie has a fractured narrative, but the fractures are most often prompted by the characters themselves. That is, just when they start cuddling and canoodling, one them will suddenly bring up some event in the past, whereupon the movie dutifully goes back in time to show us whatever they're referring to.
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, and adapted by McEwan himself, the movie seems to be making a statement about sex in the days before nice people ever talked about it. As a result of growing up in a repressed environment, these two are not just virgins; they're sexual ignoramuses. At one point, the movie goes into the past to show Florence discovering in a book the practical details of intercourse — what goes where, etc. — and she is stunned. It sounds nasty, but she's about 19 or 20 when she gets this news.
Yet, you would think that two attractive and attracted young people might figure things out, or at least fumble along in a jolly way. Impulse should be able to push things ahead, at least a little. After all, notwithstanding farces such as "No Sex Please, We're British," the British people have survived and even thrived for many centuries without ever talking about sex, except in their diaries or, in a veiled way, in their poetry. So what's the deal with these two?
Indeed, in one form or another, that's the question everyone in the audience will be asking: What's the deal with them? Then, after the film is over, the other question will present itself: What's the deal with the movie?
Giving the movie the benefit of a doubt, I'll grant that it's just possible that there's something rollickingly absurdist here that Americans are missing. I half expect that this might, in fact, be the driest, subtlest British comedy ever made, and that, if you were to see it in London, the audience would be falling into the aisles laughing. Or maybe not.
Director Dominic Cooke doesn't tip his hand. He's a highly successful theatrical director, who has also done a fair amount of TV. This is his first feature film, and yet it's hard to imagine such a seasoned director being so intimidated by the new medium that he would turn in a film that's accidentally devoid of intention, purpose, meaning or inflection. No, this had to be intentionally and purposefully without meaning or inflection. But why?
Throughout, but especially in the first half, the soundtrack is sprinkled with liberal doses of early rock 'n' roll. This becomes more and more discordant, something like listening to Little Richard sing "Ready Teddy" while gazing at the lunar surface.