Saoirse Ronan’s Academy Award-nominated supporting performance as a precocious but troubled 13-year-old in Atonement — a 2007 British period drama — provided clear evidence the Bronx-born, Irish-raised actress has some significant acting skills. That’s been borne out by her subsequent work as the lead in such movies as 2015’s Brooklyn and especially 2017’s Lady Bird, which brought her another Oscar nomination. Billy Howle doesn’t have that sort of vaunted profile yet, but he more than holds his own opposite Ronan in two current movies.
Due to a quirk of scheduling, a new big-screen version of Anton Chekhov’s renowned play The Seagull, featuring Ronan and Howle as would-be actress Nina and her suitor Konstantin, is being released in the United States this month, as is On Chesil Beach, starring Ronan and Howle as Florence and Edward, a young English couple facing unexpected problems on their honeymoon in 1962. Although both movies are deserving of attention, On Chesil Beach is the better showcase for this talented pair, insofar as one, the other, or both are on screen for virtually the entire running time. And they make the most of it.
‘ON CHESIL BEACH’
Set before the barrier-busting social upheaval of the late 1960s, On Chesil Beach is a tender drama directed by Dominic Cooke and based on the eponymous book by the movie’s co-screenwriter, Ian McEwan. The plot finds Florence and Edward wrestling with roadblocks erected by the hoary British class system — specifically, her uptight, well-to-do parents objecting to her involvement with a boy from a working-class, somewhat Bohemian family, which happens to be suffused with love and support. Despite their attraction to one another, they are exceedingly different beyond their economic status: He’s a smart, headstrong, and passionate graduate student in history, and she’s an accomplished and refined violinist who fronts a rising string quartet.
Together, alone, and with others (including Emily Watson and Samuel West as Florence’s curt mother and domineering father, and Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff as Edward’s patient dad and sweet but infirm mom), Ronan and Howle give layered performances that nail the various shades of youthful love. There’s the initial thrill, the growing warmth, the doubt, the hope, and the joy, as well as the frustration, disbelief, anger, and sadness that can arise when romance doesn’t turn out as perfect in real life as it does in a storybook. On Chesil Beach is a thoughtful look at how society and upbringing can affect intimacy. And it serves as an impressive showcase for its lead actors’ fully realized portrayals and empathic interplay.
On Chesil Beach opens in limited release on May 18.
With less of a focus on them, Ronan and Howle still do fine work as Nina and Konstantin in The Seagull, a solid adaptation of Chekhov’s prickly, darkly comic examination of love, ambition, and betrayal through the machinations of family, friends, lovers, rivals, and servants at a retreat in the Russian countryside. A group of fine actors also get considerable screen time here — Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham, and Jon Tenney among them — and supply their share of memorable moments.
A variety of romantic misfires occur when Irina (Bening), an aging, self-centered actress, is accompanied by her new boyfriend Boris Trigorin (Stoll), a successful writer, on her usual summertime getaway to see her son Konstantin, an aspiring playwright, and her brother Sorin (Dennehy) at a rural estate. Local girl Nina, object of Konstantin’s affections and eager for a career in the theater, becomes besotted with Trigorin, and a love quadrangle threatens to derail the getaway. Certain aspects of the play are tweaked a bit by director Michael Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam with added settings and location shooting, which open up the story and afford more sylvan cinematography, but it addresses the same relationships and issues as Chekhov’s classic.
Ronan, in particular, brings depth to Nina’s various peccadilloes and to the impact of her choices. But Howle does fine as the striving, emotionally fraught Konstantin. Ronan is already an ascending star, and Howle proves to be a match for her … twice.
The Seagull opens in San Francisco on May 18.
There have been many alumni of the sketch-comedy TV show Saturday Night Live since its mid-1970s debut on NBC, and quite a few of them have gone to continued and, in some cases, greater success on film and television: Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Mike Myers, and more. Now, we can add Bill Hader to the list. Barry, his new series on HBO, is an occasionally shocking and often hilarious revelation.
Hader’s comedic talents were already evident on SNL, where he plied his scathingly good impressions (Vincent Price, Alan Alda, Al Pacino, and others) and recurring characters (Stefon the club kid, in particular). His subsequent dramatic work in The Skeleton Twins, opposite his ex-SNL comrade Wiig, was laudable. Barry allows Hader to exercise his funny side and his serious side in the title role — a cold, calculating assassin who comes to yearn for something more: a career as an actor and a woman to love him. To achieve those ends, Barry will have to get out of a dirty business that, to reference The Godfather, keeps pulling him back in.
Co-created by Hader and Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Barry is the definition of edgy comedy. Its bursts of violence are light years from slapstick, yet organic to the series, as Barry’s struggle to escape the life of a killer sets up the humor and occasional pathos Hader and his co-stars generate.
Barry continues its eight-episode run Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.