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‘On Chesil Beach’ should be heartbreaking, but isn’t

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Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play a troubled couple in “On Chesil Beach.” (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

A disastrous wedding night anchors “On Chesil Beach,” a flashback-filled British drama about two young newlyweds torn apart by a fear of sexual intimacy.

Featuring exceptional lead performances, the movie (opening Friday at the Embarcadero) might have been a gem for grown-ups seeking alternatives to Marvel. But its approach to the protagonists’ anxieties weakens essential emotional impact.

Based on the novella by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by first-time filmmaker Dominic Cooke, the movie is a love story, a repressed-times period drama and an indictment of rigid social expectations.

The setting is pre-Beatles England, in 1962, before the Swinging Sixties and the generation gap changed how young people tackled the world.

Recent college grads Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) come from different backgrounds — she’s from a well-off family; his father is a schoolmaster — but they are in love and enthusiastic about the future. She is a violinist with a string quartet. He wants to write history books.

We meet the pair as they walk and talk on the titular Dorset beach right after their wedding. Their tone sounds blissful, but that changes shortly, when, at a beachside inn, the two innocents nervously struggle to consummate their marriage.

Unease occurs during a hotel-room dinner, served by two waiters who won’t budge from the tableside. The tension increases with the awareness of the nearby bed, and what it signifies.

What initially plays as nervous comedy — a stuck zipper, overall klutziness, complete inexperience (picture a blend of “A Touch of Class” and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”) — turns into horror when Florence, freaked out by certain specifics, bolts from the bed. On the beach, a shattering argument takes place.

Flashbacks attempt to reveal why Florence dreads intimacy and why Edward has anger issues. We see family woes: Florence’s parents (Emily Watson, Samuel West) are classist and overbearing; Edward’s artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff), due to a train-related accident, has debilitating brain damage.

Ronan, excellent as always, and Howle, an exciting emerging talent, give complex performances, convincingly portraying people who are in love, and products of their time, in 1962.

Cooke and the actors make the wedding-night anxiety palpable. The courtship flashbacks contain engaging moments. Cooke also addresses the British obsession with class.

But too often, the movie’s focus and storytelling methods prove problematic. By treating Florence’s fear of sex as a mystery and using frequent flashbacks to examine it, the film leaves viewers feeling yanked around and teased. A hint that something unsavory occurring in Florence’s family demands more concrete treatment.

Flash-forward sequences are maudlin, worsened by old-age makeup.

Such material may jerk some tears, but it’s not enough. With the talent involved, “On Chesil Beach” could have been a genuine heartbreaker.

REVIEW

On Chesil Beach
Two and a half stars
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Emily Watson
Written by: Ian McEwan
Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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