Ian McEwan’s film adaptation of his novella On Chesil Beach includes a disastrous bedroom scene at its core that manages to be humorous, excruciating, poignant and tragic all at the same time.
The scene in question takes place on the wedding night of young couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), who are both virgins and both extremely apprehensive – albeit for very different reasons – about their first time in bed together. Ronan and Howle perform the sequence, which is punctuated with flashbacks to their lives leading up to that point, with masterful nuance.
“Our preparation [for that scene] was the rest of the film,” said Howle, “because thankfully we shot the bedroom stuff last, so we’d already established our on-screen relationship, which felt very lived in by this point.”
Howle, whose previous credits include The Sense of an Ending and The Witness for the Prosecution, added that he “giggled” a lot with Ronan: “Saoirse has a great sense of humour. We like to have fun and make sure we’re enjoying ourselves whilst we’re working.”
Howle explained that his “first port of call” as an actor is geography, because of how locations and surroundings can have an effect on someone’s state of mind. He said the bedroom setting in On Chesil Beach felt “like a crucible, a pressure cooker”.
“That colour red is incredibly suggestive and really heavy and oppressive,” he continued. “The hotel room itself and the beach outside both feel like characters – one presenting almost freedom but this bleak vastness and emptiness like a void, and then this hotel room that’s really oppressive and awkward.”
Was it interesting to play such a reserved couple in 1962, hemmed in by so many social boundaries but also so romantic, when in today’s world many people are using Tinder and Grindr or having one-night stands? “That’s not a world I’m particularly au fait with anyway,” admits Howle, who prefers to meet people more traditionally rather than through dating apps.
“I can imagine for some people [Edward and Florence’s experience] is incredibly alien and they can’t even begin to imagine that people used to behave the way they did, and the amount of pressure put on matrimony and the way in which courtship happened,” he says.
On Chesil Beach is released in UK cinemas on Friday 18th May