Directed by Dominic Cooke | Written by Ian McEwan, adapting his novel | 109 min
Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are young and awkward and English. It’s 1962 and they’re newlyweds. Earlier in the day, they got married at the Dorset seaside and are now alone together in the marital suite. As they chat as if they’ve only just met, telling each other stories of their coming of age, we get fragments of their upbringing. Florence’s parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) are snobs, but she’s a peacenik and violinist, while Edward takes care of his “brain damaged” mother (Anne-Marie Duff), a painter.
But here they are, on their wedding night, all virginal and terrified. The picture isn’t entirely above making a little fun of its innocent, besotted couple as it frames them in the gorgeous, English summertime, all dappled sunlight and deep greens and dandelion gold—major props to Steve McQueen’s frequent DP Sean Bobbitt behind the camera here, making this one of the most eye-pleasing films of the year.
McEwan, whose novel and subsequent film adaptation, Atonement, gave Ronan her first Academy Award nod back in 2007, uses a few writerly quirks in his story, some of which are too self-conscious for their own good. But the two central performances sell it, especially Ronan, whose career has lately been going from strength to strength. The film gets a lot right, not just in the portrait of a repressive era, but in the couple’s poetic, self-serious passion and their terror in the face of the unknowable mysteries of both sex and commitment, all beneath the shadow of abuse.
I’ve already read one think-piece that calls this a treatise on the terrible cost to women of male entitlement, but I don’t see it that way. I think the film serves as a melancholy, very British eulogy for the bad old days before the sexual revolution, when conversations about sex often didn’t take place in advance of the wedding night.
A coda involving appalling old-age make-up that make the actors look like burn victims is the worst idea, and the final disposition of one of the characters is a little unclear, but these unfortunate decisions don’t ruin what’s gone on before. It’s more like a minor disappointment in an otherwise thoughtful, lovely film.