Directed by Michael Pearce.
Starring Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle and Emily Taaffe.
Moll lives at home on Jersey with her family, dividing her time between looking after her invalid father and her job as a tour guide. But she feels like the black sheep of the family and is looking for a way out. Meeting Pascal, a local outcast, seems to provide the answer but there is a lingering doubt in the back of her mind. Several local teenage girls have been brutally murdered and the evidence is pointing in his direction. But is he the killer?
Beast is the debut feature film from British writer/director Michael Pearce, one that’s received plenty of attention on the festival circuit. Good going for a low budget movie and one that’s made up of themes and ideas that we’ve seen before. There’s two reasons for all the interest: Pearce very much does his own thing with those concepts and has Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn leading the cast. Two names to watch for the future, along with the director himself.
There’s hints of Hitchcock lurking in the storyline. Moll (Buckley) falls in love with enigmatic local Pascal (Flynn): he’s a complete stranger, and the attraction for her is irresistible. But there’s been a series of murders and Pascal is at the top of the list of suspects. Did he or didn’t he? Pearce creates an all-pervasive, unsettling air of ambiguity surrounding the two of them and puts it in a claustrophobic setting, on Jersey. Tourists may put in a few small appearances, but you wouldn’t want to holiday here. Roadside tributes to the murder victims are scattered around the island, it doesn’t seem especially hospitable. The beaches are nice enough, but the locals are an insular lot, using the murders as a convenient excuse to give temporary migrant workers a hard time.
Moll’s own family are in a similar mould, with mother Hilary (Geraldine James) ruling the roost, in particular Moll herself. It’s an uncomfortable mother-daughter relationship, bordering on the abusive and, even though it becomes apparent that Moll has a troubled past, nothing she can do ever seems good enough in her mother’s eyes. When she meets Pascal, her family takes against him immediately, but that makes him even more appealing. The two are both damaged goods: her past is tainted, he has a criminal record. At last they’ve each found somebody they can connect with. It makes for a burningly intense relationship.
But when a film has a title like Beast, it immediately begs a question. Who is it? Initially, the pointers are all in his direction but, once her past is revealed, it could equally be her. The film is riddled with ambiguity to the extent that, even when it looks like it’s providing the answer, that doubt is still there. It’s already sewn so many questions that it’s almost reluctant to solve that mystery and the audience doesn’t want it to: they want to make their own minds or have their suspicions but never know for sure. It’s more in keeping with the unsettling tone.
Yet Pearce is determined to have some form of conclusion and that results in the film being over-stretched in its later stages. There’s a sense that the story is unravelling, which is disappointing as the bulk of the film is strong, setting up the premise well and creating a convincing and absorbing emotional landscape. There’s a recurring motif of Moll being photographed as if she’s upright, but in fact she’s lying down and the shot has been up-ended, tilted at a right angle. It becomes more meaningful towards the end but, more importantly, it’s all part of feeling unsettled.
Buckley is in turn vulnerable, fearsome and broken but is never less than convincing all along the way. And Flynn is suitably enigmatic with intense eyes that appear to disguise the real person. Geraldine James is also excellent as Moll’s mother, exerting her influence with subtlety and a smile like a shark. Apart from its final section, this is an powerful, fascinating and unsettling film and an extremely ambitious debut which points to a startling talent on the directing and writing front. Buckley and Flynn aren’t the only names to watch. Pearce is too.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.