Director Dominic Cooke talks the making of his stirring filmic debut, a 1960s drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as a painfully repressed young couple
Brits are famous for our “stiff upper lip” – that deeply rooted determination to keep pushing on, poker faced, no matter what kind of emotional chaos bubbles beneath the surface. Over the decades, of course, the tension has loosened, but there’s nothing like a good period drama to remind us of the prudishness that still lingers, no matter how faintly, in our collective consciousness. Enter: On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novella, refashioned for the big screen by the author himself and directed by acclaimed theatre director Dominic Cooke in what is his first feature film. It is the story of Florence and Edward (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle), a young couple in 1960s England, whose wedding night at a seaside hotel is the cause of more torment than titillation.
It was the script’s moving, and at times excruciating, honesty that first caught Cooke’s attention. “I had wanted to make a film for a while, but I wanted it to be something I felt really passionate about,” the British director tells us over the phone. “I read the script before I read the book actually and I immediately connected to the story of these two characters who are trapped in a very particular time period, with a whole bunch of stuff that they’ve inherited from their parents. It was so truthful – something I could really recognise because I was born two years after it was set (1962) so I grew up in that repressed, uptight, emotionally uncomfortable world.”
Cooke and McEwan worked together to develop the screenplay further, before enlisting Ronan for the part of Florence, a complex, tightly wound violinist with left wing leanings – much to the disdain of her snooty parents. “Ian had worked with Saoirse on Atonement and already had a close relationship with her. He was very keen on her playing Florence but I hadn’t really seen her as a grown up,” Cooke recalls. “Then I saw Brooklyn and thought, ‘Oh my word she’s perfect for this’. Within ten minutes it was obvious how brilliantly she could play someone with an exterior that’s quite restrained but with a very rich inner life, which was what this film required.” The actress, and AnOther coverstar, jumped at the role, committing to the shooting dates a year in advance and flying straight from the set of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird in Sacramento to attend rehearsals for On Chesil Beach in the UK.
Ronan and Howle make a perfect on-screen pair, performing a tender, painfully awkward tango around a hotel room in between flashbacks to the pasts that shaped them, both as individuals and as a couple. Edward is a UCL history graduate and what Florence’s mother terms “a country bumpkin”, hailing from a small village outside Oxford. He has had a difficult but loving childhood; his mother (Anne Marie Duff) is brain damaged and her nude roamings around the house and animated communication with birds serve as a stark contrast to the stifled attitudes of British society at the time. Edward is an introspective character but shares some of his mother’s insuppressible energy; when he discovers he’s received a First Class Honours degree, he jumps on a bike and heads to Oxford in search of someone to share the news with. It is there he that meets Florence, a student at the university, falling quickly for her prim charms and securing her heart in return.
Both characters are a little out of place in the universe, something that proves at once unifying and divisive – and which is reflected in the film’s visual elements. “The main idea was to show two people in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cooke explains. “We wanted them to feel like they were outsiders in the world that they were in. All the choices that we made with regards to the style and colour of both costume and set was to reflect the era of their parents and grandparents, not really their own generation.”
Indeed, it is only when they are outdoors that either protagonist seems to truly kick back – and the only time when sparks really fly between them. “Whenever they were in nature we wanted them to feel at one with their environment,” Cooke says. “We didn’t use any green in the interior shots, to make the green of the outdoors really stand out.” This idea, he expands, was inspired by the Manchester-set drama A Taste of Honey (1961) where barely a tree is shown, and John Huston’s The Misfits (also made in 1961) with its marked contrast between rural and urban settings. As a result, the innocent joy that the couple find lounging in verdant fields or on grassy riverbanks acts as a potent juxtaposition to the extreme anxiety they face in the confines of their stuffy marital suite; what should be the most natural of acts has been rendered taboo by post-war puritanism, and perhaps something darker.
The hotel scenes, Cooke confides, were the most difficult to shoot – “not just the sex scene but that whole section of the film, partly because it’s just the two of them in one space and you have to think about how to make that into something filmic.” For the bedroom scene, he reveals, he pushed Ronan and Howle to think about two things: “the stakes – what was personally invested for each of them in achieving what they wanted to achieve, in going through with this first night of sexual intimacy and making it work. Then at the same time that social conditioning – the deep longing and, on the surface, that very held-in restraint. They were both brilliant and really upped the ante with it.” A statement that is entirely true, and has to be seen (through cracks in your fingers to minimise the cringe factor) to be believed.
But it’s not all stiff upper lips and sexual tension. On Chesil Beach is also very funny, punctuated by McEwan’s typically witty observations – not just about British prudishness but also our snobbery and pride (best demonstrated in a heated tennis match between Edward and Florence’s highly unpleasant father). It is also a magical ode to music, using a rousing score to drive the narrative, from Florence’s beloved classical compositions, including Mozart’s electrifying Symphony No. 35 in D major, to Edward’s favoured rock’n’roll hits which hint at the liberated counterculture about to topple the Western world from its conformist perch. Last of all it’s a very timely reminder – the film’s release aptly coincides with Mental Health Awareness week – of the importance of communication, especially surrounding sensitive issues. “Ian said that the film’s message is that Florence and Edward should really have just had a cuddle,” Cooke says with a laugh, “and I think he's right.”
On Chesil Beach is in cinemas nationwide from today.