Beast is the 2017 debut feature of Michael Pearce, which I nabbed on DVD this week after hearing good things about him and his “psychological thriller” set on the island of Jersey. I hunkered down yesterday to watch it with a cup of tea and a cockapoo on my lap.
And I’m pleased to confirm I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact, it’s a damn good film.
Pearce’s inspiration from Beast was drawn from the real-life account of Edward Paisnel, a psychopathic serial rapist and paedophile known as the Beast of Jersey who terrorised residents of the island for ten years before his arrest in 1971. Pearce grew up with stories of Paisnel during his childhood on the island and drew aspects of his subject material for Beast from that experience.
The film’s protagonist is Moll Huntford, played here by the exceptional Jessie Buckley. Moll lives with her family in a neat suburban home under the constant watchful glare of her mother (scene-stealer extraordinaire Geraldine James), and her father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Moll works as an island bus tour guide (a job she obviously loathes) and plays second-fiddle to her pretty sister Polly – who upstages her at her own birthday party – and arrogant older brother Harrison. It’s immediately clear from the opening scene that Moll’s trapped in a suffocating environment, and it’s not long before the stifling monotony of her gloomy life pushes her into a perilous situation.
Enter Pascal (Johnny Flynn, Buckley’s equal), the roughened island outsider with tangled blond hair and mysterious facial scars, who steps in to rescue her at the last second. Moll and Pascal strike up a friendship that soon escalates into a passionate romance, much to the disgust of Moll’s family, who regard Pascal as something beneath them in their close-knit society. But of course, nothing can stand in the way of true love – Moll finds herself inexplicably drawn to the island’s dangerous outcast, descending deeper and deeper into her own personal darkness as her feelings for Pascal grow.
However, it isn’t long before Pascal winds up in the frame for a series of murders on the island, dragging Moll with him into social exile. Now trapped in a new form of destructive purgatory, Moll is torn between her love for Pascal and the possibility that he may, in fact, be a psychopathic killer, and she only reaches a resolution of sorts by the end of the film (or never, depending on your own interpretation).
Beautifully Brooding Violence
Beast is an exquisitely directed film. Pearce and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun make excellent use of the camera, both through subtle movements (slow-zooming during a seemingly-harmless dialogue to elicit unexpected tension, for instance) and jarring angles to ensure the audience is never allowed to settle into what they might start to believe is a typical British crime thriller. I found myself drawn into the addictive gloominess of the story, unable to look away as Moll’s mother casually drives yet another emotionally-manipulative dagger into her daughter’s heart, or as the delectably-prolonged suspense of the narrative hurtles towards its peak in the final moments.
And as previously suggested, Buckley and Flynn are fantastic as the film’s tragic, seemingly-doomed lovers. Their chemistry – off the charts in every scene – is somehow captured and made tangible by Pearce’s powerful and intelligent direction. Moll and Pascal are two of those wonderful character types who you genuinely don’t know how to feel about right the way through the film: do you sympathise with them as the community hemming them in on every side grows increasingly unforgiving, or should you remain detached and clinical in case they turn out to be the villains of the piece in the end? That’s exactly where Pearce wants you to be, and it’s where Buckley and Flynn keep you.
The Bottom Line
Beast is a twisted fairy tale, an immersive, experiential commentary on the human condition that requires vigilant viewing – look away for a few moments and you might miss a key line or some unspoken thing between two characters. It’s not exactly a pleasant watch, but you definitely won’t regret giving it your time (at just over an hour and a half, it’s not a huge commitment anyway).
I’ve kept this review short for fear of giving too much away – you need to see (and experience) Beast for yourself. Pick it up on DVD now.
Enjoy with a cup of tea and fellow movie-buffs. Cockapoo optional.
Verdict: (4 / 5)