Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle can’t help but defend their own ’On Chesil Beach’ characters over its tragic ending
The romantic drama’s conclusion is a potent mixture of poignant and heart-breaking
WARNING: The following article contains SPOILERS for the ending of On Chesil Beach.
So, if you’ve not seen the romantic drama, which revolves around Saoirse Ronan’s Florence and Billy Howle’s Edward’s wedding night, their issues consummating the marriage, as well as flashing back to how they met and fell in love, then you should probably think twice about reading ahead.
The ending to “On Chesil Beach” is heartbreakingly tragic.
After watching how Edward and Florence fell in love with each other and overcame their complicated pasts, the pair’s attempt to consummate their marriage ends in disaster.
After Edward prematurely ejaculates on Florence’s thigh, Florence storms out of their hotel room and races down the titular beach. Edward confronts her, which is where she insists that she doesn’t want to have a sexual relationship with him, and can’t imagine wanting one in the future. All the while, though, Florence insists that she is still in love with him.
Unfortunately, Edward is distraught, betrayed and humiliated by Florence’s revelation, and decides to storm off the beach and never speak to her again. Two flashback sequences, set 13 years and then 50 years after the incident, show that Edward never truly got over the sudden and shocking annulment to their wedding, while it is teased that Florence feels the same way, too.
I recently had the chance to speak to those involved in “On Chesil Beach,” during which time the conclusion to the film came up. Unsurprisingly, both Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle defended the reactions of their characters to the wedding night debacle.
“The story is so unusual. It is not your typical love story. It is a sad romance. As Ian (McEwan, the screenwriter and novelist behind ‘On Chesil Beach’) puts it, it is a soft tragedy.”
“You’re watching two people grow in love with each other more and more. And everything up until the day of the wedding has been a complete success. They have fallen for each other and are committed to each other.”
“But through this fear and lack of communication it unravels so quickly. What is so devastating about it is that she tries to compromise as much as possible. And sacrifice so much in order to keep it going and keep them together. And it just doesn’t work and he won’t listen.”
At least Ronan conceded that Edward had “also been emasculated and filled with shame.”
Meanwhile, Billy Howle admitted that the end of the film “wasn’t about crowd-pleasing,” before insisting that its deviation from the source material was necessary.
“There was something that the film itself required that the book didn’t have. I personally think that it is really tastefully done and is really necessary. This open endedness that Ian has done and is so good at doing in a lot of his work is absolutely heartbreaking. For everyone involved.”
When I asked if it was more heartbreaking for his character, Howle responded, “Selfishly yes. It is really, really interesting. I know Dominic agonized over the conclusion. It was a really, really difficult moment. Because we didn’t know how far to go with it.”
Director Dominic Cooke also opened up about the conclusion, revealing what they we were looking to achieve with those final sequences.
“The thought of the last act really is how he comes to acknowledge what he has done and what he has lost. And also to show the cost of a bad decision that’s not interrogated.”
“If you finish on the beach then you don’t know what has happened. They might even get back together again in your head. But Ian in his books is very interested in that thing of a fatal moment in someone’s life.”
“Of course the two of them have inherited fatal moments. Because there is a history of abuse with her. And there is this terrible accident involving his mother. Both of those moments have impacted their entire lives. This notion that fatal moments happen where lives are determined is an important moment in the film.”
“I also felt like we needed a catharsis. And that was about those two people seeing each other. In the early draft they are in the same place at the same time but they didn’t see each other.”
“I thought that they had to see each other so that you can see how much they have impacted people’s lives. And that was cathartic for the audience, because it is not a happy conclusion. But if you have a feeling of something being recognized that can take the place of that.”
Fast-forwarding over several decades twice in the final act was always going to take the audience by surprise, and Billy Howle is the first to admit that it was a “risk.”
“There’s such thing as cinematic requirements. We require things going to the cinema. Because we’re used to stuff. Film language is its own language. That’s really important to remember. The ending of the book is unfilmable. It was really difficult to do.”
“I know that they were slightly apprehensive about jumping ahead twice in quick succession. The scene in the shop, when the daughter that they could have had walks in, even now it breaks my heart just thinking about it. Filming it was really tough.”
“Because what could have been is something that we all suffer from. So to be able to put that on-screen, I really hope that we have conveyed that truthfully, because it is really heartbreaking.”
Meanwhile, Cooke admitted that he doesn’t believe that either of the characters are really at fault, and instead insisted that the real antagonist in the film is “the past.”
“It is what they have inherited from their parents. Which gets in the way of what they want, which is to connect deeply and properly. But their pasts and the pathologies of their families and the society they live in really get in the way.”
“There were a lot of people who were very open and were very sexually liberated at this time,” Ronan added. “But we’re not dealing with them.”
Dealing with these themes and issues in such a tight location was one of the main attractions to the film for Howle. “I am a big fan of theatricality in film. Cinema has room for it and their should be more of it. This story does lend itself to that.”
“There is something very staged about a honeymoon consummation. That itself is a stage and is an arena. And it is all a bit weird. The bed is the stage. And it’s like, ‘Come on perform!’ That pressure is their downfall.”
For Cooke, despite the world seeming like a freer place, this issue is still as prevalent today. “I still think the frontier between intimacy and sex is as complex and challenging and difficult as it has ever been. And in some ways it is even harder.”
“Obviously everything is freer, but young people have so many new challenges. I have been surprised just how much young people have connected with the film. So remote. So different. But what that couple bring into that bedroom with them, young people bring in a similar level of pressure often with a whole bunch of different reasons.”
This was an assessment that Ronan fully agreed with. “It is still a huge problem now. Obviously it would have been even more so back then. I just don’t think there was the language for expression for how you felt. Especially when it is such a difficult situation.”
But, maybe, just maybe, Edward and Florence’s issues can be explained simply by the fact that they are English. Because after I suggested that it was a particularly English film and set of characters, Cooke agreed, before adding, “I think that the English have a particular set of problems.”
“Which is partly because of the class system and the Empire, because there is this idea that we don’t show our feelings. Stiff upper lip and all that. That happens in a lot of cultures but we are specialists.”