A darkly gripping tale of love and murder, writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut Beast explores the need for freedom and the danger it can represent.
Played by Jessie Buckley, Moll is a young woman living on the island of Jersey who is constantly belittled by her upper-class family and those around her. Her mother Hilary (a gracefully sinister Geraldine James) alternates between calling her stupid and selfish and insisting that the two of them are best friends. Her brother berates her for not caring for their ailing father while he himself neglects his daughter, and her sister overshadows Moll at her own birthday party. Moll seems to be drifting through life with no real purpose or ambition beyond insisting that her job as a guide of the island’s bus tours is “only temporary”. It’s little wonder why she is immediately struck by the rough and unrefined stranger Pascal Renouf, a hunter and craftsman who works with his hands and seems utterly unconcerned with the difference in social status between him and Moll. Johnny Flynn as Pascal certainly makes for a compelling figure with his scarred face, lidded eyes, and one of the best character introductions I’ve seen all year – defending Moll from the unwanted advances of a man by firing his rifle into the ground without a word or change in expression. He’s even defined by his smell, a rare character element within film, as Hilary’s insult that she could “smell him a mile away” becomes a recurring trait that Moll uses to distinguish him from the others around her. The relationship that develops between the two seems to offer Moll an opportunity to break free of her family’s confines, but when Pascal becomes the leading suspect in a series of assaults and murders on the island Moll’s desire to stay with him is tested by the hostility she receives from the rest of the community and her own fears of what he may be capable of.
Beast is largely a character study of Moll and she’s one of the richest and most multifaceted protagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. At the beginning of the film she seems like a quiet and innocent girl – singing in the church choir and wearing a pristine buttercup yellow dress at her birthday party – yet her desire to feel something real manifests through self-destructive actions such as deliberately grinding glass shards into her hand. The more we learn about her past the more we understand the darkness and rage within her that she struggles to resist. She constantly insists that she’s “a good person” but it’s as if she’s trying to convince herself each time she repeats it. It raises the question of what about Pascal she’s drawn to, as what first seems like love starts to resemble defiance or even a desire for danger. It’s a phenomenal role for Jessie Buckley and a career-making performance as she gives Moll fragility, determination, spirit, and something vaguely threatening. With so much of the story told through Moll’s perspective even when Pearce gives us an answer as to whether or not Pascal is guilty I remained unsure if it was the right one or just what Moll had decided was true, leading to an ending that I’m still trying to decide my own interpretation of.
The Jersey coastline and forests look gorgeous through Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography – with still and isolated wide shots that seem to swallow the characters, while the more personal moments are filmed in close proximity with shaky, unbalanced movements. There are a few too many moments where I felt Pearce was teasing his audience with manipulative surprise dream sequences to demonstrate Moll’s fears, particularly when Buckley does such outstanding work expressing Moll’s emotions without the need for them, but this could be a consequence of the director moving from shorts to a feature film and unsure how to keep the pace up. For the most part, though, Beast is a powerful and confronting experience that suggests great things are on the horizon for both its leading actors and its director.