Belfast Telegraph

Saoirse Ronan: It's really important to encourage people to speak openly

Romantic drama On Chesil Beach sees Saoirse Ronan reunited with the work of Ian McEwan for the first time since her breakout performance in Atonement. The duo talk about bringing the intimate story to life, and why we shouldn't romanticise the past

By Georgia Humphreys

The first time Saoirse Ronan starred in an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel, she played, by her own admission, a precocious child who destroyed everyone's life.

Eleven years on from that breakout role in Atonement, the Irish star (24) reunites with the author of On Chesil Beach, in which she portrays a young married woman "whose life is ruined".

It's an intimate story which McEwan - who has also penned the screenplay for the romantic drama - didn't want anyone else's fingerprints on.

"It's very tender," notes the 69-year-old, who was born in Aldershot in Hampshire.

"It's quite emotionally vulnerable, as it were, to exploitation. It could have been made pornographically, or satirically, or sentimentally.

The writer, who has published more than 20 books, adds fondly: "There's a lot in this novel that is personal, quite dear to me - a lot of the locations."

On Chesil Beach tells the touching tale of two young lovers, Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), embarking on their honeymoon in 1962.

As the couple struggle with the pressures of what is expected on a wedding night, the film looks at how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears of intimacy shape the rest of their lives.

Audiences first saw the romantic drama at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered last September.

Since this, film producer Harvey Weinstein has had numerous allegations of sexual harassment made against him, spurring on the #metoo and Time's Up movements worldwide.

With this in mind, does Ronan (below) look at On Chesil Beach, with its exploration of male aggression, differently now?

"I suppose what the Time's Up movement has been so brilliant at doing is allowing people to have that conversation and feel like they can," muses the Oscar-nominated actress, whose rise to fame has been accelerated by films such as Brooklyn and Lady Bird.

"Florence and Edward don't ever have a moment where they can both hear the other one - or Edward can't anyway.

"But I understand his reaction and his aggression and shame in a way, because there's a great amount of pressure put on men to be a certain type of man too, and to deliver in a certain way - in the same way that women are expected to be a certain thing.

"Because there's a lack of communication, it means the relationship falls apart just as it's begun and I suppose that's something we've become really aware of in the last six months or so, that it is so important to encourage people to speak openly and without any fear of judgment."

As the characters at the centre of the drama - which is directed by Dominic Cooke - battle with expressing their true feelings, McEwan hopes the audience will feel as much sympathy for Edward as for Florence.

"They're both trapped in this," he points out.

"He's never going to be violent towards her or cursive, but she does feel the pressure - she says on the beach when they have their central row, 'Every time you take a step towards me, I expect you to do something else'."

And when bringing the story to life on screen, it was also important to show how both of the characters' upbringings have affected them.

"We don't want Edward to seem like simply an entitled brute," explains McEwan.

"He's got his own problems and that's why we have those flashbacks - he comes from an emotionally icy background.

"Florence has, in her past, sexual abuse from her father that we don't want to be the whole explanation of who she is, but it is certainly a very powerful element."

The book, which was selected for the 2007 Booker Prize shortlist, was published just over a decade ago.

And there's been another pertinent news event in the years since that has perhaps made McEwan view his own story through a different prism.

"We're now beginning to, maybe, see this through the eyes of Brexit - this fantasy that's common at the moment, among some people at least, of a 'golden age'," he elaborates.

"This (the Sixties) was most certainly not a 'golden age'. People were rather frosty, stiff, conventional, oppressive, misogynistic and so on.

"If we were to suddenly time travel back, I think after a couple of hours we'd want to scream, especially because of the ways in which people related to each other."

It would seem that Ronan, who was born in New York but moved back to Ireland with her parents when she was three, agrees with McEwan's sentiment.

When the notion that the film highlights problems with romanticising the past is put to the talkative actress, the question has barely finished before she exclaims, "Right?!"

With a chuckle, she continues: "I think there's a lot of people that do that in any era, actually, and sometimes you go can go, 'I don't really know what you're reminiscing about!'

"There's always been difficult times for people and that continues. So, yeah, I guess the film makes you think about how much we've actually progressed."

Ronan reckons if there's one thing we can feel optimistic about in today's world, it's that we live in a more open society.

"I grew up being encouraged to talk about how I feel and being quite open about how I feel and how I think, so I've never suffered any sort of repression at all, or anything like that," she says.

"But I think certainly with the feminist movement right now, it's at a point where it's become such a part of pop culture that it's accessible, and the information is accessible for young people - boys and girls - in a way that it wasn't before.

"It's not stigmatised as much as it was, even a few years ago."

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas now

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