On Chesil Beach production designer Suzie Davies discusses researching period, creating environments that contrast with the film’s characters, and how different her process is when working with Mike Leigh. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
It’s Britain in 1962, and nobody talks about sex. A young couple — Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) — is left alone in a hotel room, expected to do something they know nothing about. Their courtship was sweet, loving, idyllic even — but everything in On Chesil Beach comes down to one scene, in one room. The trip from the dinner table to the bed, although only a few metres long, seem like a treacherous journey. There’s no avoiding sex, but it’s a terrifying leap into the unknown.
Production designer Suzie Davies achieves a delicate balance: her sets are period accurate and naturalistic but they’re also expressive beyond plain practicality. She brings out the contrast between Florence’s upper middle-class upbringing and Edward’s poorer, more ramshackle country home. Their home environments are shaped by their parents and the circumstances they were born into; these young people long to break free to find a home that they themselves can shape. Instead, they find themselves in the cold, neutral environment of the hotel room, where the colours oppress and displace them. Convention dictates that they are supposed to be here — it’s just the natural order of things. But neither feel like they fit in.
I talked to Davies about researching period, creating environments that specifically don’t reflect the characters, and how vastly different her process is when working with Mike Leigh.