It's summer 1962, and England is still a year away from huge social changes; 'Beatlemania', 'The Sexual Revolution' and 'The Swinging Sixties'. We first encounter Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), a young couple in their early 20s, on the day of their marriage. Now on their honeymoon, they're dining in their room at a stuffy, sedate hotel near 'Chesil Beach'. Their conversation becomes more tense and awkward, as the prospect of consummating their marriage approaches. Finally, an argument breaks out between them. Florence storms from the room and out of the hotel, Edward pursues her, and their row continues on 'Chesil Beach'. From a series of flashbacks, we learn about the differences between them, their attitudes, temperaments and their drastically different backgrounds, as well as watch them falling deeply in love. Out on the beach on their fateful wedding day, one of them makes a major decision that will utterly change both of their lives forever. "On Chesil Beach" is a powerful, insightful drama about two people, both defined by their upbringing, bound by the social mores of another era.
"On Chesil Beach" is a gripping, heart-rending account of a loving relationship battered by outside forces and influences first formed in childhood, in a society with strict, inflexible rules about uniformity and respectability. Florence was born into a prosperous, conservative family in a neat, organised home presided over by her overbearing father Geoffrey (Samuel West), a successful businessman. Edward comes from a contrasting background. His father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough) is a teacher, while his art expert mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) is brain-damaged after an awful accident; their home is informal somewhat chaotic and closer to nature. Florence is a talented, ambitious violinist with a string quartet; Edward has graduated from 'UCL' with a History degree and aims to become an author. They married as virgins; two very different people, but deeply in love. Only hours after their wedding they find themselves at their dull, formal honeymoon hotel on 'The Dorset Coast' at 'Chesil Beach'.
They dine in their room, and their conversation becomes stilted and nervous. The consummation of their marriage is fast approaching, and while Edward welcomes the prospect of sexual intimacy, Florence is scared by it. The tension between them boils over into a heated argument as Florence feels repelled by Edward’s advances. She dashes from the room, out of the hotel and on to 'Chesil Beach', with Edward in pursuit. On a remote part of the beach they've a blazing argument about the profound differences between them. One of them makes a startling decision that will have life-long consequences for them both. In a series of flashbacks, the film emphasises the differences between Florence and Edward, the underlying tensions and circumstances that contributed to that crucial moment on their wedding day. Other scenes illustrate what happened to these two people in subsequent decades and how their lives were shaped by that dramatic stand-off on 'Chesil Beach'.
In the forefront, Florence is a violinist. She’s reserved, not much into any kind of fashion. She’s a girl who probably went to a university in a dormitory of girls with like- minded backgrounds. Her mother Violet (Emily Watson) is of a certain age, so she would never be high-end fashion; she’s kind of settled in the mid-1950s. So, the influence on Florence is from her mother; she's never a fashionable young girl, but nicely dressed and interested in music. The clothes worn by Florence and Edward also hint at the difference in their social circumstances; Edward looks not very well looked after, a little frayed about the edges. He seems to be in the same jacket all the way through, whereas she changes a lot; usually something nice from department stores. Money isn’t a problem for her family, the Pontings.
Even though he's from a family without much money, Edward is bound by a sense of respectability, typical of this early-1960s period. He’s followed the constraints of wanting to be like his father, who’s a teacher. Most men of that time wore jackets and ties. Florence’s ‘going-away dress’ needed to be something special, and to make a statement in visual terms. There are still signs of hormonal adolescence in there for sure, but with Edward, a lot of that anger comes from a righteously indignant place. So, if he or someone he cares about has been wronged, that’s the point at which his anger or rage will rear its ugly head. So, there’s this real dichotomy in the story, and it feels like Edward is at loggerheads with the world in which he finds himself. If their wedding day had happened even a couple of years later, things might have gone better for Florence and Edward. They’d have been more able to talk about things. They’d have had a lot more facts to go on. With the two of them the film wants to move them forward from the 50s into the 60s. The film shows this is their height of fashion. Like the new modern man and wife together; on the beach.
Ian McEwan’s 'On Chesil Beach' is among the most acclaimed British novels of this century. Published in 2007, it was short-listed for 'The Booker Prize', garnered glowing reviews and became a best-seller. But as often happens in the film world, it took a long time for the book to make the transition to the big screen. There's a simplicity of narrative and a clarity of emotion about it. It's a portrayal of a young woman at a particular time, and what that meant for her; defining her creative ambitions and her sexual being, her own self. And it’s clear how these two young people are affected by the time they live in. McEwan’s novel is a highly specific work in many respects. The year in which most of the story takes place, and in which Florence and Edward are married, is 1962, just before the dawning of a new youth culture and a sexual revolution that would sweep the western world. And the book’s main geographical location is 'Chesil Beach' itself; an extraordinary place like no other. It was just on the cusp of the 1960s, so it was a time that was crucial both for fashion and for this story. This was pre-teenage revolution. 'The Beatles' hadn’t quite happened yet. Girls still dressed very much like their mothers and boys like their fathers; that's to say, conservatively.
'Chesil Beach' (‘Chesil’ is derived from an Old English word meaning ‘shingle’) has been designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI); it's fossil-rich and important to wildlife. It’s also very cinematic, and the most cinematic part of all turns out to be also the most inaccessible. It’s separated from the mainland by a lagoon, and it goes out on a long spit of land seven to nine miles long. The physicality, and the relationship the beach has to the land and water around its so peculiar. It’s essentially a strip of land that juts out into the water and it’s kind of isolated. There’s something about that coastline, and the beach itself feels untouched, untainted by human hands. It’s the closest you can get to something 100% natural. Looking out over that beach, it can be tempestuous, it can be serene. But even in it's serene stillness there’s something very disconcerting. That encapsulates the human condition quite well. Even in it's stillness and absence of anything, there’s something quite disconcerting about it, and about our existence.
One of the great thing about this script is that it reveals two central characters that are both sympathetic, but also flawed and limited by the circumstances they've grown up in. Film is the ideal medium for showing interior life because the camera can pick up nuances of thought and subtext, and the big screen reveals them. The main visual idea is of two people trapped by the time they’re living in, and the sense that they’re living in a world not of their own making. Music is very important in the movie, as both characters’ identities are grounded in their musical taste. Early 60s Rock n’ Roll and chamber music performed at 'Wigmore Hall' in London. The film tackles the issue of social pressure being put on young people, no matter what era they grew up in, to be or to behave in a certain way. The story has a very specific sense of place and time. One side of the movie is about a particular time; the moment before the liberal values of the sixties kicked in. The other side is more universal; the challenge of true intimacy, first sexual encounters, and how one bad decision can shape your whole life. These questions are as alive for contemporary audiences as ever.
This film gives you a new perspective on our parent's generation. We now live in a time of a toxic nostalgia, where many people think that the past was a better, simpler time to live in. If you look at the emotional lives of many people born in the first half of the twentieth century and the emotional repression that was the norm in the UK, how traumatised many people were by the war and the hardship they suffered; it was not so easy. We're now little more sympathetic to what that generation had to deal with, how strong they're to survive it and what they sacrificed along the way. Audiences will take away from this story a sense of how dangerous it's to react to difficult situations rashly, and how fortunate we're to live in a time when we can be more open about our feelings. Repression of any sort is harmful. Learning who we truly are makes us more integrated human beings and more able to make wise choices for ourselves and those around us.