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Short Takes: On Chesil Beach

(Dominic Cooke, UK, Bleecker Street, Opening May 18)

Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel On Chesil Beach is almost unbearably slim. It’s a tale of a young woman and man whose lives are altered by one seemingly monumental incident, and it is written with a ruthless economy to leave the reader bereft. Set mostly in 1962 at an inn in seaside Dorset, where graduate student Edward and violinist Florence, barely in their twenties, have come for their honeymoon, McEwan’s book sketches the fear and loathing the two experience around sexual consummation, each of them carrying enough specific emotional baggage and general social repression to turn their wedding night into a site of irrevocable trauma.

It’s delicate, tricky stuff to translate to the screen, and director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter McEwan err on the side of opening things up via incessant flashbacks that expand upon the book’s psychological portraiture. So the film jumps back and forth between Edward and Florence’s youthful courtship and their extended hotel-room fail, which can tend to feel almost comic in its recurrent fumblings with zippers and shoelaces. As the central couple, Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan are each intriguingly Janus-faced, confident and politically progressive in flashbacks, timid and conservative in the bedroom.

Unfortunately, the film sends the fragile characters on a far more traditional arc than does the book, culminating in a sentimental, “present-day” climax complete with tear-stained old-age latex makeup. At least the last shot finally justifies this interior, claustrophobic film’s otherwise baffling ’scope frame.