Young love implodes in the wrenching On Chesil Beach, which stars Saoirse Ronan as a bride terrified of sex and Billy Howle as a groom insistent on losing his virginity on their wedding night. Here’s novelist-screenwriter Ian McEwan on the couple’s marital agony.
Adapted by McEwan from his tenth novel and directed by Dominic Cooke, the film opens a window into the England of 1962, when the stuffy white middle-classes still frowned on the notion of pre-marital sex. The coming sexual revolution would arrive too late for the benighted protagonists of McEwan’s honeymoon from hell at Chesil Beach in Dorset.
As flashbacks show, classical musician Florence (Ronan) and history graduate Edward (Howle) meet cute at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally and have a dreamy courtship. Each is carrying baggage, however. Edward’s artist mother (brilliantly played by Anne-Marie Duff) was struck by a train door and brain-damaged when he was a child. Florence was sexually abused by her father (Samuel West). Edward himself is at fault on his wedding night for not showing more gentleness and restraint.
McEwan—the author of Atonement, whose self-adapted The Children Act is also heading to theaters in 2018—talked recently to Culture Trip about the upcoming film. The following interview contains plot spoilers.
Culture Trip: On Chesil Beach is very much a story of its time. Both the novel and the film make me think of the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began in 1963/(Which was rather late for me).” I know Larkin was referring to the Profumo Affair, but there was definitely a sense of a new sexual freedom emerging in 1962–63 that Edward might have appreciated if he could have taken advantage of it.
Ian McEwan: Yes. I think 1962 probably was the beginning of something, but it hadn’t really happened for Edward and it certainly hadn’t happened for Florence. So it’s that bit of the ‘60s we tend to forget. The ‘60s is a concept, really, that’s rooted in the Woodstock generation. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had not quite gripped the public imagination in 1962. That general warming-up of human relations had not really begun to happen. The [birth control] pill was just arriving in Britain. There was a lot ahead, but the first signs were only just appearing.
The fact that Edward likes Chuck Berry might be an early clue to something loosening up, but in many other ways 1962 could be 1955, or even 1935, from the point of view of young people feeling there was no sexual experience they could have unless they were married and each had met the other’s parents. So this was a hinge moment in time.
CT: Florence is sexually repressed because her father abused her. We see that shot of her, when she is a young girl, awake in her bunk in the boat, and her father is hovering there. Abuse explains why she’s revulsed by the thought of sex as a young woman.
IM: In successive drafts of the novel, I whittled this down because I didn’t want abuse to be the complete determinant of who she was. When we were preparing the script and in post-production on the film, we were at pains to whittle it down there also, so it’s not an overwhelming point. But it’s there all the same—there’s not even a degree of ambiguity about it.
This kind of thing is always difficult to do in movies because they’re that much more literal—you’ve got to see things. We made use of music—the Rachmaninov Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos is the piece she’s listening to as a little girl in the bunk on the boat when her father’s about to abuse her, so that begins a flood of memories when she’s a young woman turning pages at the [pianist’s] concert.
But abuse is only one element. Florence also comes from an emotionally chilly environment. Her mother [played by Emily Watson] is particularly distant. Hostility remains between Florence and her father. Florence herself finds it difficult to describe to herself her own revulsion at sexual intimacy. As she says to Edward on the beach, “I just don’t know what it is.” But at the end of that decade, she would have known, and certainly now she would.
CT: I feel the father’s guilty feelings about abusing Florence explain that burst of paranoia he has when he accuses Florence of spying on him at the tennis court.
IM: It’s a strange and antithetical notion that people who have guilt express it in terms of anger rather than penitence, but I think it’s a human fact. Florence’s father is constantly angry with her for what he did to her.
CT: Do you think that the accident that befell Edward’s mother, causing her brain damage, might explain his anger and his need to fight people?
IM: Yes. It was very hard, actually, to cast the part of Edward. We were very lucky, finally, to get Billy Howle. We wanted a fighter but we also wanted a young man whose vulnerabilities and tenderness were very clear, to help us get into this complicated mix of who these two young people are who’ve come to this hotel room after all the wedding celebrations. In the movie, as in the novel, I’ve relied on extended flashbacks.
Edward wishes to become not only a sexually experienced young man but also an intellectual, to make something of himself. It’s only when he’s a teenager that his father [played by Adrian Scarborough] takes him into the garden and uses the phrase “brain damage.” It’s helpful to Edward to suddenly have a defining phrase for something that he’s taken for granted, but which has been a large determining element in his childhood. Then he can say to himself, “I realized that I was not my mother, I was not brain-damaged.” Even these words, by the way, are difficult to speak in the social context.
CT: It’s curious—or maybe there’s a real rationale for it—why Florence asks Edward to talk about the fights he’s had at a moment when they might be expected to be having foreplay in their honeymoon suite.
IM: Well, the evening’s not going well. Edward, showing the last vestige of that country bumpkin side of himself, is trying to stay calm, but the zip on Florence’s dress has got stuck. Edward is in a rage with himself over that, so she tries to take control to calm him down. She’s not a passive being. She’s rather good at running a string quartet. She can answer her parents back. She says to Edward, let’s have a conversation—let me find out more about the worst side of you, as well as the best side.
CT: The novel is very musical in structure, as if it’s made up of five movements that jump backwards and forwards in time. Were you in a sense using classical and rock music as metaphors for Florence and Edward’s temperaments and approach to love?
IM: More as a kind of vehicle for their misunderstanding. Right from the beginning, in the first dialogue scene, Edward tries to describe to Florence the structure of a twelve-bar blues, and he’s using, as a blues musician would, terms like a “seventh,” or “B flat,” and she’s using terms like “the dominant,” “the sub-dominant”: it’s two different languages for music. And then, of course, Edward tries to get Chuck Berry on the radio—“Roll Over Beethoven” or whatever it is—and to Florence it’s incomprehensible. It could be Elvis as far as she’s concerned, or “Hank,” as she says. It’s all one to her. In the novel, it’s extraordinary to her that such simple music in common time, in 4/4 time, should need a drummer beating out the time—her ears are so attuned to the classical tradition.
Edward does his best to like Florence’s music. He comes to a rehearsal of her string quartet, but all he does is stare out the cellist—who is, in fact, the man Florence eventually marries. So music plays the role of the difference between them. When Florence describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy” and “merry”—terms that rock journalists would never use—Edward is very taken aback and amused. But, of course, that will lead him to understand many years later that the little girl who comes into his record shop is, in fact, Florence’s daughter. No one else would describe Chuck Berry as “bouncy” and “merry.”
CT: There’s no closure between Edward and Florence in the novel, but rather an enveloping sadness. In the film there is a kind of closure, almost a rapprochement.
IM: I’m not sure I would call it closure. It’s just a recognition of sorrow. Edward is weeping. Florence sheds a tear. There’s a sense of their life together that might have been, one that you can’t recapture, that will never come back. There are no second chances.
In the novel, we gather the full weight of Edward’s loss by Florence simply disappearing off the page. Though the narrative hints that she did give that concert at Wigmore Hall just a few years later and she did glance toward seat 9C and saw that he wasn’t in it [as he promised he would be during their courtship], we know very little about her life. In the film, I wanted to give the audience a larger sense of what Edward had missed. The woman he loved was not sexually frigid, as he had accused her of being—it’s a term that was bandied around a lot in those days, but it no longer is. She’s had three children. She’s happily married. She’s head of an internationally famous string quartet, and she’s fulfilled.
CT: It made me feel that male sexual pride is monstrous in its self-destructiveness.
IM: Yes, I think masculinity is very much the issue here. All they needed to do really—and the last page of the novel says this—was to give each other time, to go on loving each other and just let things grow. But Edward has had this expectation of what a wedding night should be. He feels he’s being cheated of it. He’s angry with Florence. If we’re looking for the single moment that changes their lives, we’re looking at the moment when we go back right [to Edward and Florence on Chesil Beach] at the very end, and Edward is standing with his back to Florence, and she says, “Let’s walk back to the hotel together,” but he remains angry and sulky and doesn’t turn. And he destroys his life—simply by not turning around and saying, “Yes.”
CT: Your novels Atonement and Sweet Tooth were different types of metafictions. I wondered if On Chesil Beach ever took a meta-fictional form when you were writing the novel?
IM: Not really. As its opening sentence suggests, it’s a novel with a totally omniscient and controlling narrator who’s almost a character himself. He tells you right from the beginning that Edward and Florence were young, educated and virgins on their wedding night. So it belongs more in the tradition of Chekhov than a text that is reflecting upon itself. It asks, in other words, the reader to abandon himself or herself entirely to the art of fiction. I move in and out of these modes depending on the subject matter.
CT: Finally, does Chesil Beach have any special significance for you?
IM: I hiked it many, many years ago. It’s one of the most difficult hikes, because it’s so arduous walking on that slipping shingle. It’s a wonderful feature of the southern English landscape that I very much treasure.
On Chesil Beach opens at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan on May 18, 2018.