Arts

Saoirse Ronan: I've never suffered any represssion

New drama On Chesil Beach sees Irish movie star Saoirse Ronan reunited with the work of Booker Prize-winning English writer Ian McEwan for the first time since her breakout performance in Atonement. Georgia Humphreys talks to the star, who has campaigned for a Yes vote in tomorrow's abortion referendum, and the author about art, politics and relationships

Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan are reunited by On Chesil Beach for the first time since Atonement

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 24-year-old Irish actress 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 and numerous screenplays, adds fondly: "And 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.

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

With this in mind, does Ronan 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 actress, whose rise to fame has been accelerated by films such as the screen of Colm Toibín's novel Brooklyn and the US comedy-drama Lady Bird, both of which earned her Oscar nominations – she was also Oscar-nominated for Atonement.

"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, yeah, 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, partly, 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 [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, amongst some people at least, of a 'golden age'," he elaborates. This [the 1960s] 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."

And it would seem Ronan, who was born in New York to parents from Dublin but moved back to Ireland with her mum and dad 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?!"

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, who has been vocal in her support of a Yes vote in tomorrow's referendum on legislating for abortion in the Republic, 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.

Earlier this month she joined fellow Irish actors including Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy, Father Ted's Pauline McLynn, Love-Hate's Tom Vaughan Lawlor and Northern Ireland thespians Ciaran Hinds and James Nesbitt in an online appeal urging people to vote Yes.

"I'm fully in support of a Yes vote. So many women every day have to travel abroad, mainly to the UK to have an abortion and what [a Yes vote] will do is just give women the choice and give women full right and ownership over their own body," she told ITV's Lorraine show.

Ronan, who lives in Co Wicklow, says: "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.

"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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