Classical Music Captures A Young Wife's Anxiety In 'On Chesil Beach'

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 3:28 pm

The film On Chesil Beach opens with a cocksure Edward, played by Billy Howle, mansplaining the blues to his new wife, Florence, a classical violinist played by Saoirse Ronan. It's a snapshot of the young couple's relationship, which disintegrates throughout the course of the film due to mismatched expectations and fears of intimacy. Director Dominic Cooke, a veteran of theater making his feature film debut with this Ian McEwan novella adaption, says that as the film goes on, music becomes an outlet for both pain and passion.

"It's about a particular moment in a couple's life. But also, it's about a particular moment in history: 1962, before the kind of revolution of the '60s kicked in," Cooke says. "Britain was still stuck in a very sort of repressed, austere time. And so it's how these young kids navigate their way through such a difficult and stuffy atmosphere."

In McEwan's novel, the author also made music an integral part of the story. As McEwan said in a 2007 interview with NPR, music has always been an important component in his own life.

"It's part of my own mental furniture," McEwan told NPR. "So it often ends up being part of the fate, destiny of my own characters: to be either musicians, or for music to be something of a key to their character, really."

In the film, viewers see Florence playing violin, but what they are actually hearing is Esther Yoo, a rising star in the classical world, play. Yoo plays selections by Bach, Schubert, and Mozart — many of the same pieces written into McEwan's story — accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She also plays original music for the film by English composer Dan Jones.

"I sort of love the way that Ian [has] written the music absolutely into the fabric, the sort of DNA of these characters," Jones says, noting that his pieces in the film are meant to amplify the intensity of those classic works.

In On Chesil Beach, Ronan appears to play the violin, but Cooke says that took some training. Yoo says Ronan did a good job of playing it off.

"As a violinist, there are several movies out there where you watch the scenes where there's a string player or an instrument player and cringe at the end result," Yoo says with a laugh. "But I have to say that, in this film, it's been done very well."

Yoo performed all of the violin solos on the soundtrack, expressing the emotional and spiritual voice of the restrained Florence.

"For Dan's pieces, it was definitely very, very important to keep Florence's head space and ... all the emotions that she couldn't express verbally — a lot of that came out through the music she played," Yoo says.

Yoo was cast for the role like any other actor and studied for it like one. She read McEwan's book thoroughly, paying close attention to what music and the violin means to Florence's character. And Cooke says Yoo performed like one for the score.

"I thought it was extraordinary the way I could give a note, which was kind of like a note I'd give to an actor about a feeling, and Esther would take that, play the same piece completely differently, whilst being very accurate musically," Cooke says. "It makes you realize how much of the person is in the sound. It's not just about the music itself, the instrument and the skillful playing of that. It's to do with the soul of the person."

On Chesil Beach is in theaters now.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another newlyweds story and the story of two newlyweds who clash and connect over their differing musical tastes on their honeymoon night. This is the new film "On Chesil Beach." It is based on the 2007 novel by British author Ian McEwan, who's adapted it for the screen. As Tim Greiving reports, it is a story about repression and how music expresses what words and bodies cannot.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: "On Chesil Beach" opens with a cocksure Edward, played by Billy Howle, mansplaining the blues to his new wife Florence, played by Saoirse Ronan, who has much more sophisticated tastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON CHESIL BEACH")

BILLY HOWLE: (As Edward) So we're in E.

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Florence) The tonic.

HOWLE: (As Edward) No, E.

RONAN: (As Florence) All right, E.

HOWLE: (As Edward) So four bars of that. You know the sort of thing. (Singing) Woke up this morning, head felt so bad. Then into A.

RONAN: (As Florence) The subdominant.

HOWLE: (As Edward, singing) Woke up this morning, head felt so bad - same thing, different chord. See?

RONAN: (As Florence) Neat. Tricky.

GREIVING: It's a lighthearted moment on their wedding night when music reveals their differences. But director Dominic Cooke, a veteran of theater making his feature film debut, says as the story goes on, music becomes an outlet for both pain and passion.

DOMINIC COOKE: It's about a very particular moment, a particular moment in a couple's life but also a particular moment in history - 1962, before the kind of revolution of the '60s kicked in and Britain was still stuck in a very sort of repressed, austere time. And so it's how these young kids navigate their way through such a kind of difficult and stuffy atmosphere.

GREIVING: In the novel, Ian McEwan made music an integral part of the story because as he told NPR in 2007...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

IAN MCEWAN: My life is absolutely permeated by music. And it's part of my own mental furniture, so it often ends up being part of the fate, destiny of my own characters to be either musicians or for music to be something of a key to their character, really.

GREIVING: On screen, viewers see Saoirse Ronan as Florence, a talented violinist with a string quartet. They hear her played by Esther Yoo, a rising star in the classical world.

ESTHER YOO: I got the book, and I read it very thoroughly, paying very close attention especially to Florence's character and her relationship with her instrument and what music means to her and how it makes her feel, especially in contrast to her relationship with Edward often.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESTHER YOO PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA FOR VIOLIN SOLO NO. 3 IN E MAJOR, BWV 1006")

GREIVING: Yoo plays selections by Bach, Schubert and Mozart, many of them pieces written into McEwan's script accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She also plays original music by English composer Dan Jones.

DAN JONES: And I sort of love the way that Ian has written the music absolutely into the fabric, the sort of DNA of the existence of these characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN JONES' "DATE ON THE RIVER")

JONES: The music I write almost feels like a - not a sideshow, but it feels like it was wanting just to create some space around the intensity and beauty and focus of this classical music which is just so important and written into the film.

GREIVING: In the film, we see the actress appearing to play the violin. But director Dominic Cooke says it took some training.

COOKE: One hand was very accurate. The other hand...

(LAUGHTER)

COOKE: ...I don't want to give the game away - was slightly less so. But, yeah, she learned all the onscreen passages as best she could.

GREIVING: She does OK, says Esther Yoo.

YOO: As a violinist, there are several movies out there where you kind of watch the scenes where there's a string player and cringe (laughter) at the end result. But I have to say that in this film it's been done very well.

(SOUNDBITE DAN JONES' "FEAR OF SEX")

GREIVING: Yoo performed all of the violin solos on the soundtrack, expressing the emotional and spiritual voice of the restrained Florence.

YOO: For Dan's pieces it was definitely very, very important to keep Florence's headspace and all the emotions that she couldn't express verbally - a lot of that came out through the music she played. And Dan did an amazing job of translating that into his music, that inner anxiety and inner fear and trauma.

(SOUNDBITE DAN JONES' "FEAR OF SEX")

GREIVING: Esther Yoo was cast like another actor, and director Dominic Cooke says she performed like one.

COOKE: It's a kind of reminder about what being an artist is because I could give a note which was kind of like a note I'd give to an actor about a feeling, and Esther would take that, play the same piece completely differently...

YOO: (Laughter).

COOKE: ...Whilst being very accurate musically. I thought that was so interesting because it makes you realize how much of the person is in the sound. It's not just about the music itself, the instrument and the skillful playing of that. It's to do with the soul of the person and how that comes out.

GREIVING: Maybe the soul of a girl who loves Beethoven and the soul of a boy who loves Chuck Berry just weren't meant to be. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN JONES' "SOLEMN LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.