BEAST Review by Eva Moravetz
Michael Pearce’s debut feature BEAST is set on Jersey (his former home) and was inspired by the real life psychopath ‘the Beast of Jersey’. However, this is where the similarities end; the suspected offender is a handsome poacher and the focus is on the woman who naively – or rather obsessively – wants to believe in his innocence. Pearce didn’t want to make a documentary thriller and neither did he intend to come up with something ‘gloomy and small’. Instead, in BEAST, he’s given us a smashing psycho-sexual Cinderella-story framed by the beautiful, rugged background of Jersey (and Benjamin Kracun’s expert cinematography).
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is an isolated 27 year-old woman who represents a sort of cross between a black sheep and a sacrificial lamb within her smug and well-to-do family. She works as a tour guide and in her free time she has to care for her ill father or sing in a choir conducted by her cold and domineering mother Hilary (a deliciously icy Geraldine James). There’s no room for boyfriends or fun it seems. She also has a secret: back in her school days she attacked a girl with a pair of scissors, but then, teenagers often act in volatile ways; and Moll believes the girl deserved it anyway.
Prime Suspect in a Series of Murders
Moll is constantly disciplined, put down or upstaged, even at her own birthday party from which she runs away. She walks into a nightclub where she spends the night drinking and dancing in a sensual stupor of alcohol and adrenalin. The next morning, she tries to shake off the unwanted sexual attentions of a nightclub suitor when she’s saved along the dunes by a handsome stranger with a hunting rifle. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) is a lone wolf with a past who keeps himself to himself but his charisma instantly puts Moll under his spell. They become lovers to the dismay of her uptight family and despite the news that Pascal is a prime suspect in a series of murders whose latest victim has just been discovered in a potato field (note the allusions to Hitchcock’s Frenzy where a female victim’s body is hidden in a potato sack on a lorry). The film expertly builds up tension and suspense.
Because Pascal is the only serious suspect, the question is not who did it but whether he did it or not. The flow of the plot never slows down and there are enough twists and turns to keep us engaged and guessing till the last minute. All the while, we witness the heroine metamorphosing from a demure girl subjected to emotional abuse (at one point Hilary forces the tearful Moll to repeat ‘I’m sorry for being selfish’) and a rebellious daughter to a feral creature with a morbid fascination with death and violence.
A Repressed Woman is Never Good News
Whatever genre we look at, a repressed woman is never good news. Think of Carrie (1976), Black Swan (2010) or The Piano Teacher (2001) just to mention a few. Whether the forces are channelled outwards or inwards, there’s always some sort of dark violence that is born when a woman is being controlled and denied her freedom to express herself (and her sexuality). The Victorians were experts on repression. And perhaps, without that, we wouldn’t have seen such literary creatures as Heathcliff, Rochester or Dracula springing up from the pages of novels; ambiguous, dangerous but irresistible men and Gothic archetypes Pascal more or less belongs to. He represents everything Moll desires: wild freedom, unconventionality, sexual excitement, adventure (or rather danger); Pascal is her animus. ‘I understand you ‘cause we’re the same’ she tells him at some point in the film. They seem to be total opposites but Pascal awakens something beastly and sinister in Moll that catches us unawares.
The working title of the film was ‘Animal Shadows’ and there’s a primeval atmosphere all through the movie; dark and ghostly woods – a frequent location and one where the lovers first have sex, dead animals, potato fields or the sea ferociously lashing the shore. In contrast, civilised society is symbolised by Moll’s snobbish family in their elegant dining room or sunny garden, the choir or the stiff police detective Cliff (Gravelle) who tries to pursue Moll – in vain.
A Superb Cast
All the cast of Beast are superb, including Buckley who has proved herself in a number of films and TV series, most recently in the mysterious period drama Taboo (2017) as the sassy widow Lorna Bow and as Marian Halcombe in The Woman In White (2018). Here she delivers a potent performance not putting one foot wrong. A surprisingly charismatic presence comes from Irish actress Olwen Fouéré who strikes an intimidating and stunning figure as a questioning police detective even though only for a short, few minute screen time.
Pearce definitely managed to avoid creating something ‘gloomy and small’ and instead he dished up a cracking suspense thriller with art-house sophistication – a blend of Hitchcock-style black humour (Moll says she loves killer whales because they always seem to be smiling) and the eroticism of 1980’s psycho thrillers with locations and an atmosphere that evokes the dark, pagan ambience of The Wicker Man (1973).
Dir. Michael Pearce, UK, 2017, 107 mins, cert. 15
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Shannon Tarbet, Oliver Maltman