On Chesil Beach
by director Dominic Cooke
When I first read the script to On Chesil Beach I was immediately compelled by its honest, tender picture of two young people on the cusp of adulthood. Florence and Edward are 22 years old, charming, intelligent and talented. They love one another deeply but seem to have been born in the wrong time and place. England in 1962 is stuffy and uptight. The social and cultural revolution of the sixties has yet to kick in and, like most young people brought up in austere post-war England, they have been taught to neglect, ignore and repress their feelings. This leaves them emotionally unprepared for their wedding night, woefully ignorant about sex and unable to share their fears. The results of this are devastating.
On Chesil Beach was originally a novel by one of our greatest living writers, Ian McEwan, who’s brilliantly adapted it for the screen. In all his work, Ian anatomizes the darker and more unresolved sides of our natures with astonishing accuracy. But he balances this with tenderness and compassion for his characters, who are vivid and complex. His writing also has a clear sense of place. For him, place, time, class, culture and history shape our identity at a very deep level. This is a view that I share; I have always believed that we’re shaped very deeply by the values we absorb from the first moment we’re born. I’m also fascinated by which parts of us are innate versus which are conditioned by our upbringing. In this movie, two young people struggle to make sense of their instinctive natures within the narrow, conformist expectations of the times they live in. The film is very much on their side, willing them to transcend their difficulties but the story is also realistic about how hard it is for any of us to go beyond our social conditioning and the pressures society layers onto us.
In addition to depicting a specific time and place, the film grapples with the universal situation of a couple’s first night together. Having screened the movie across the world, it’s been fascinating how people from very different cultures identify with Florence and Edward’s situation. The anxiety around physical intimacy is something many people privately feel whatever their background and culture. Although we live in a different era to Edward and Florence’s, sadly the expectations young people feel around their sex lives, largely due to the centrality of the internet in their lives, are as loaded and unrealistic as ever.
Great scripts attract great talent and I was very lucky to have two extremely smart, sensitive and talented actors at the center of this story with Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. They were a joy to work with and brought insight, charisma and a rare maturity to their roles. They are supported by some remarkable actors. Emily Watson, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough, and Anne-Marie Duff, who play Florence and Edward’s parents, are among Britain’s finest. Between them they depict a generation completely out of touch with the values and sensibilities of their children, staring at them uncomprehendingly across an abyss. I also loved working with a remarkable team of designers, editor, composer and the renowned cinematographer Sean Bobbitt to create a very distinctive visual world in which we show Edward and Florence as outsiders in an outdated world.
I am delighted to be able to share this movie with you. I hope you feel as passionately about the results as I do.