Newlywed game

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday May 23, 2018
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Ian McEwan is one of the rare "serious" British fiction writers who routinely creates terrific novels that command both the intellect and the loins. On the page ("In Between the Sheets," "The Cement Garden," "Atonement") McEwan finds engrossing ways to convert the womb of the British family into a chamber of horrors that yields irresistible pleasures for both the prude and the sensualist.

With "On Chesil Beach" (opens Friday), novelist McEwan turns screenwriter, training his comically jaundiced eye to the task of adapting his 2008 novel about 1962-era newlyweds (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle). Florence and Edward's apparently limitless affection and understanding hit a snag when it's time to take their marriage to bed. The anguish of their plight is accentuated by the shabby circumstances of their Dorset coast newlywed quarters.

Gay veteran British stage director Dominic Cooke is deft in his handling of this failed marriage-bed night. It's a plight that will remind some longtime fans of New Wave UK cinema of such mid-60s classics as the Cannes-winning comedy "The Knack and How to Get it" starring Michael Crawford, or 1967's "The Family Way," where the talented Boulting Brothers mixed pathos, shame and low comedy when a handsome young redhead (Hywel Bennett) can't get it up for his night in the sack with his young bride (grownup Hayley Mills, freed from Disney).

The young leads are pitch-perfect: Saoirse Ronan ("Lady Bird") and Billy Howle (one of a bevy of young men in the ensemble of "Dunkirk") are a couple whose relationship is cruelly shadowed by the fickle fate of their respective families' histories. McEwan provides flashbacks where we learn how Edward's mother was injured in a freak accident at the local train station, becoming a prisoner of eccentric behavior that her husband and children come to accept as the new normal.

"On Chesil Beach" continues the British knack of finding roadblocks to sexual freedom in the tatters of their infernal class system. The film received its North American premiere last year in Toronto, but its American commercial release was delayed so that Ronan, in consideration for award-season honors for her star turn in Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," would not be competing with herself for top acting honors. Co-stars Anne-Marie Duff and Emily Watson.