Monsters prowl the English countryside in Beast and although they may be of the human variety, their bite is no less savage. In this blistering feature debut from award-winning short filmmaker Michael Pearce, fairy tale romance and horrific true crime collide over the course of one sweltering Jersey summer and, for flame-haired protagonist Moll (Jessie Buckley), life will never be the same again.
Make no mistake, though; in Pearce’s sharp-eyed screenplay, Moll is as much a wild thing as those around her, desperate to get her claws into something of substance. Life for this 20-something is both aimless and oppressed; she ekes out a living as a reluctant tour guide while, at home, she is kept firmly in her place by the sharp tongue and draconian expectations of her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James), who routinely treats Moll like the black sheep of the family.
Moll’s ongoing struggle between the impossible task of pleasing her mother and her growing need to break free is clear from the moment we meet her, a reluctant guest at her own birthday party. With her hair pulled back tight, and clad in a pretty pastel dress, she pastes on a smile as she mingles with her parent’s friends and politely deflects enamoured local cop Cliff (Tristan Gravelle). When her sister hijacks the party with news of her pregnancy, something quietly snaps. Abandoning her family, Moll steals off to a local nightclub where she spends the night drinking and dancing with joyous abandon.
This decision to break the rules is momentous, not just in the freedom of the moment but also because it brings her into the life-changing orbit of local lad Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Theirs is no meet cute, however. Both of them dishevelled from a night of illicit activity — clubbing for her, rabbit hunting for him — their paths collide when the gun-toting Pascal rescues Moll from the overzealous attentions of the boy she met in the club. Their chemistry is immediately enthralling.
Noticing she has a minor cut, Pascal’s first words to Moll are “You’re wounded. I can fix that” — a line dripping with the promise of knights in shining armour and love conquers all. But this is resolutely not that film. While the spark between the pair soon ignites into a tempestuous romance that pits Moll against her family, Beast runs far deeper, into psycho-noir territory. In the background of their relationship, a local killer targets young girls, unsettling the community and stirring up a miasma of fear, paranoia and blame. As both Moll and Pascal find themselves under suspicion, their newfound trust is tested to its limits.
From the ominous, haunting choral soundtrack that plays over the opening aerial shot of the stunning Jersey shoreline, both Pearce and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun expertly play with thematic and visual juxtapositions of light and dark, the beautiful and the grotesque. Fairytale motifs – deep dark woods, charming villages – are played for both magic and menace. Moll’s comfortable-looking home is more cage than sanctuary, and a pivotal scene with the couple alone in a forest turns the big bad wolf trope firmly, and breathlessly, on its head. The recurring imagery of mud is an effective visual shorthand for Moll’s psychological journey, rooting her to both the physical landscape and the pleasure and pain of Pascal.
Crucially, this is not a film about victim-hood, but about the reclamation of power and independence. Pearce has written Buckley not as some wide-eyed ingenue but a cloistered woman learning to embrace life, coming to realise her value and harness her courage. Buckley’s incredible performance is a magnificent maelstrom of rage and passion; as she unleashes years of repressed emotions – the change apparent in her loosened hair, the defiant way in which she finally stands up to her family and, when needed, Pascal himself – it’s impossible not to be caught up in her wake. She is no easy prey. She is a force of nature.
So, too, is Flynn’s Pascal. Multi-layered and beguiling, he is by turns strikingly confident and devastatingly vulnerable; sometimes dominating the landscape, sometimes overwhelmed by it. There’s never any doubt as to why Moll is so captivated by him, even as the more challenging aspects of his personality begin to reveal themselves, and their chemistry is raw and electric. James, too, puts in a stunning, quietly menacing performance as Moll’s mother, in a role which could easily have been reduced to villainous caricature; she is as much a catalyst for Moll’s transformation as Pascal.
Indeed, Beast offers such a striking cast of characters, and such an involving, twisting narrative, that it will have you on tenterhooks well before the intense, pitch-perfect climax which does profound justice to Moll’s determination to be master of her own fate. It’s both a testament to her strength of character, and the bold, uncompromising filmmaking style that marks Pearce out as an exciting and original new voice in British cinema.
UK release: April 27, 2018