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At the Movies: On British shores and on British sets

‘On Chesil Beach’
British writer Ian McEwan is the author of more than a dozen accomplished novels in the last 25 years and has had several of them converted to the screen, most famously “Atonement.” One of his more distinctive works, “On Chesil Beach,” a novella from 2007, has now become a feature film.

The film’s location is a real – and picturesque – piece of coastal landscape situated at the tip of Dorset in southern England. “Chesil” comes from an old English expression meaning “gravel,” or “stony,” the latter the principal feature of the extensive beach itself. That stony appellation could just as well describe the rocky marriage we witness in “On Chesil Beach.” (The film, rated R and running 110 minutes, was released on May 25.)

The time period, 1962, is carefully chosen to straddle the end of the postwar recovery (and a more correct, reserved British milieu) and presage the coming of the “Swinging Britain” of new music, fashions and a kind of youthquake. Two newlyweds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, personify this interim period, the first representing a proper, respectable life and the second depicting a more boisterous, searching one.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) comes from a well-off Oxford family of formal style and means. Her father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a wealthy businessman and her mother Violet (Emily Watson) a stern believer in rules. Florence is prim in manner, diction and dress and practices a most formal kind of music, the string quartet.

Edward’s family is working class, with a reticent father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough) and a vulnerable mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) who has suffered brain damage. Edward (Billy Howle) is rough around the edges, scruffy in manner and wardrobe but bright, with a recent degree in history, and is a lover of the emerging rock-and-roll phenomenon.

Their honeymoon is the framing device for “On Chesil Beach.” We see them settling into their room in a mediocre hotel, plainly tentative about themselves and the night to come. They order dinner in but barely eat and are clumsy in conversation. Their move to the marriage bed is hesitant, awkward and ends in an incident which drives Florence, disgusted, out to the beach, where Edward later finds her, troubled and chastened. These hotel and beach scenes are punctuated throughout with flashbacks to each one’s backstories, their meeting at a ban-the-bomb event, their growing infatuation, their family lives and their personal passions and dreams. Such sequences limn both the genuine affection they have for each other and those elements that separate them.

Saoirse Ronan is on a roll with a string of splendid performances, including this one. As Florence, she exudes confidence as a musician yet appears wholly squeamish about what marriage entails. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but she does. Co-star Howle likewise balances a portrait of an eager young bloke who struggles to be a gentleman but doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. The two of them dancing on the edge of a sexual cliff is heartbreaking to watch.

“On Chesil Beach” was directed by Dominic Cooke, an English stage director, who had the veteran US cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) at his side. McEwan himself was the screenwriter. They craft a handsome and touching picture, one which deftly guides a splendid cast, captures the flavor of the period and displays the magnificent strip of Chesil Beach from all angles. The filmmakers also achieve the filmic equivalent of the couple’s sexual dilemma by selectively using telling closeups – of hands and feet and limbs – that effectively signal both the passion and the stress of their matrimonial encounter. Such parts make the whole the more affecting.

Leon Vitali (far left) appears on the set of “The Shining” with director Stanley Kubrick (center). Photo: Kino Lorber

Any film fan going into this documentary on the work of the famed director Stanley Kubrick might assume that the title stands for the master himself, but they would be wrong, for “Filmworker” concerns Kubrick’s long-time factotum and jack-of-all-trades Leon Vitali, an English actor who gave up his own career to serve all things Stanley for 30 years – and continues to do so. (The film, which is unrated and runs 94 minutes, opened on June 1).

Vitali was an ambitious young film and television actor who became enamored of Kubrick after seeing “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), proclaiming: “I want to work with that man.” Then, in 1975, he landed the crucial role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s epic “Barry Lyndon,” based on the Thackeray novel. Thrilled to get the part but even more fascinated by observing Kubrick’s work on that fraught production, he then eschewed acting to assist the director on other projects, starting with “The Shining” (1980), where he, among other things, became a kind of babysitter for the film’s child actor, Danny Lloyd.

Vitali’s commitment to Kubrick, and his general usefulness, waylaid his career as a performer for a behind-the-scenes function not precisely defined but incorporating myriad roles as casting director, line reader, acting coach and general “assistant,” as well as stints as dogsbody and gofer. Whatever Kubrick, long based in England, needed, Vitali provided it. Working on “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), one commentator said that “every day was full of a lot of difficult jobs,” and Vitali sought ways to do them. The film’s lead, Matthew Modine, says in “Filmworker” he thought Vitali “was a slave to Kubrick” by making himself so useful.

To tell this one-off story, director Tony Zierra uses myriad interviews with miscellaneous production people, actors and aides to Kubrick, as well as sit-downs with two of the stars of his pictures, Ryan O’Neal (“Barry Lyndon”) and Modine. Still, the film finally depends on querying Vitali himself, looking like an aging hippy (gaunt, with head band and stippled chin), and making the case for his importance on a Kubrick set. The commitment of Vitali to his muse is complicated, a mix of simpering dependence and overarching magnanimity.

Kubrick himself (who died in 1999) was reluctant to do interviews, and there are none with him in the film; he appears in stills and in brief off-set sequences. Fans of the director’s oeuvre will get their kicks seeing some of the backstories of his productions, but the film is hardly a clip fest. However, one intriguing clip for Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), has Vitali returning to acting, though masked. He appears as Red Cloak in a decadent party scene at the end of the film.

Vitali also performed another important role in assisting Kubrick: helping to store and archive all of Kubrick’s film prints and memorabilia. It is a role he continues to this day, seeing himself as a standard bearer for the man’s legacy, as he works as a consultant for the Kubrick estate on definitive versions of the Great Man’s works.


Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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