“Beast”: Film Review

A world of dark impulses hides in plain sight in the luminous landscapes of Jersey. A serial killer is about. This does not stop Moll (Jessie Buckley) from roaming freely.

Her icy mother (Geraldine James) does not seem too concerned about her daughter’s safety, yet very concerned with controlling her. Moll’s siblings, like her mother, look down on her. Only her father looks at her with affection and kindness. But he is only partly there, his mind adrift with dementia. Recognise the story?

This is only the beginning of a gripping, taut tale. Moll tries hard to conform, but she has a rebellious heart. She craves care and respect. A local policeman (Trystan Gravelle), smitten with her, seems to offer that. Moll is perhaps too perceptive, senses something odd in him, and instinctively rejects him.  When her mother treats her with blithe cruelty, at a garden party, Moll runs off to dance all night a club near the beach.  And at sunrise, she meets her fate.

A wild love story begins.

It is not exactly romantic love. More like kinship, a sense of recognition, when Moll and Pascal (Johnny Flynn) first encounter each other. Later, Moll says to Pascal ‘I am not who I say I am. I know you understand. Because we are the same’. They feel at home with each other, each recognising something in the other which is also part of themselves.

They might be on the cusp of a folie à deux, but both are smart, nervy, instinctive. They gauge, dance around each other. The relationship advances through successive instances of tested loyalty.  But how far can loyalty go? Maybe the haven Pascal offers is not so safe. Is he Moll’s Blue Beard? And there is a strangeness to Moll, that Moll herself is troubled by. Riven by self-doubt, and shame, yet with an integrity that carries her forward even as she is stumbling.

A suspenseful, layered, complex story evolves – shocks, surprises, twists. It’s a deliciously dark tale, a suspenseful thriller, perfectly formed.

Pascal is an outsider even though, as he points out, Moll’s family and their likes are newcomers to his ancestral island.  He roams the forests and the fields, day and night. The landscapes belong to him, he is home. It is only when Moll suggests they run away, that she sees something else about him.

If Beast is an unsettling fairy tale, there is no whimsy, no fantasy. It is fully steeped in the real, yet conjures up atavistic stuff, and that makes it an enormously satisfying film. It reveals ambiguity and darkness in the people around us; care and love mingled with threat and antagonism. Moll’s mother is the archetypal bad mother of old tales, often portrayed as a stepmother or a witch, as in Hansel and Gretel; affection and menace intertwined. An odd kind of jealousy seems to animate her – not about opportunities, or beauty, but jealousy of her daughter’s freedom of spirit, wilfulness.

Every exchange between mother and daughter crackles with barely reined in energy. Is the mother the tormenter, and the daughter the victim? Perhaps the mother recognises herself in Moll, and needs to keep herself in check as much as she thinks her daughter needs to be held back from herself.

There is a deep rage in both of them, and there is a mythical dimension to that. Closeness and contained fury can be heard in the mother’s words, as she utters something that is part warning and part threat: ‘Sweetheart, you can’t change the rules just because someone has shown an interest. Maybe I have been too soft on you’.

As in all those old tales, the father is well-meaning but absent, powerless.  And when Moll is interviewed by police after another killing, a fairy godmother appears, a stern, strong policewoman (Olwen Fouéré) with long, very white hair. Will Moll take heed? And is her courteous policeman suitor all he appears?

As for Pascal, he might genuinely be Moll’s knight in shining armour, but then, what is she to him?  Who is Beauty and who is the Beast? For all his strength and resolve, Pascal also appears at times childlike, frail, disarming. He bears the blondness of innocence. Moll appears more robust, with, at times, more outward physical aggression. Darkness against sunlight battle it out, but both are fluid, mingled, confusing.

This is an accomplished first feature for director Michael Pearce.  His considerable ability was already evident in his early short films, such as “Stranger” (2006), and his more recent, striking, short feature “Keeping Up with the Joneses” (2013), which starred Maxine Peak. In “Beast”, Pearce gives the setting a strong sense of place, but a more diffuse sense of time. The location, however, is of much greater import. The film is set where Pearce grew up, Jersey, and is also the location for a real-life series of murders, by the so-called Beast of Jersey, which took place in the 1960s.

“Beast” is an impeccably written thriller, with an enormously enjoyable narrative, and a journey of the mind, rooted in ever-shifting, restless action, and beautiful tension. Pearce’s film shines a light on those dark impulses contained just below the surface, which occasionally shake loose and erupt. The filmmaker has referred to Tarkovsky as an influence, but also to David Attenborough’s nature programmes. If the film’s title seems to refer to the old “Beauty and the Beast” tale, it is also a nod to beastly creatures, that other kind of prowling wildlife: people.

Director, Writer: Michael Pearce
Cinematography: Benjamin Kracun
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Olwen Fouéré, Shannon Tarbet, Oliver Maltman

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