Dir: Michael Pearce
Beast’s primary triumph is that it’s so impressive for a debut. Writer-director Pearce carves a singular niche with a spirit of originality that keeps you gripped to a potent climax. It all feels quite remarkable for a first feature.
We meet Moll (Jessie Buckley) at her birthday party, a cucumber sandwiches-type affair in her parents back garden, somewhere on the island of Jersey. And even though it’s her big day, she’s rather upstaged. Her little sis, with boyfriend at her side, chooses to overshadow proceedings by announcing their engagement and wallowing in the guests’ congratulations. Moll lurks out of the limelight, preferring a conversation about the cruelty of attractions like SeaWorld keeping killer whales in captivity.
Eventually she’s had enough, and flees unseen to the nearest nightclub, determined to abandon herself to whatever the night may bring. Which turns out to be a run-in with rough-hewn local loner, Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn). He’s a Jerseyman through-and-through, his name instantly relaying that he’s something of an outsider, something different. And with a touch of the primitive about him, Moll cannot deny her impulse, her head no doubt fighting where her heart is leading her. For such a dalliance goes entirely against her middle-class upbringing, an upbringing epitomised by the imposing figure of Geraldine James in the role of her mother.
The grim backdrop to this unfolding attraction of opposites is the drip feed of news that young girls are going missing in the area. In the closed environment of the island setting, with very little evidence to go on, the police have slim pickings by way of suspects. And as questionable episodes in Renouf’s past begin to rear their head, could Moll’s new-found lover even be a suspect himself? Even if he is, is it too late? Is she in too deep?
The physical confines of the set-up are crucial to the impending tone of this bitter and brooding photo-romance. It exists in a world cut off from the mainland …and the mainstream. Moll is trapped as much by her family unit as by geography, feeling the pull of something beyond both. As relative newcomers, the two leads inject a freshness that’s invigorating. Buckley carries the film, nailing the angst of a young adult on the cusp of full maturity. Meanwhile Flynn is raw, sweaty masculinity personified, a contemporary echo of Oak from Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. The couple’s tenderness contrasts with the stalwart experience of James, an actor exuding an unsettlingly masculine menace. Underplayed at every turn, her strict politeness is charged with the kinetic potential to truly terrify. Indeed, with more than one contender, the true target of the film’s title remains satisfyingly vague.
In the opening sequence, Moll plucks a single unruly hair from her neck, pulling it out at the root. By the end it’s grown back, demanding removal once more. It’s a sublimely simple symbol for this wild tale of the prim versus the primeval. It’s not a crime thriller, it’s not a horror, it’s a romantic fiction concocted from ingredients of both. The result is as dark and eerie a love story as you’ll see.
Being trapped within the boundaries of suburbia is a childhood frustration buried deep in many of us. Beast pulls us in by tapping into this, then daring to confront questions that feel dangerously close to the knuckle. Through a twisting and unpredictable exploration of heartfelt passion, its primal power is to ask what each of us is willing to accept when such boundaries are absolved by the blinding effect of ‘love’.
★ ★ ★ ★