23rd Apr2018

‘Beast’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Emily Taaffe, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Hattie Gotobed, Shannon Tarbet, Olwen Fouere, Tim Woodward, Oliver Maltman, Barry Aird | Written and Directed by Michael Pearce

beast-poster

This Jersey-set thriller from writer-director Michael Pearce is an accomplished feature debut. Beast packs a lot into its lean running time; and while it’s dotted with clichés, and some scenes fall flat, it is intelligent and atmospheric and it grips until the end.

Twenty-something Moll (Jessie Buckley) feels trapped in her middle-class home, which she shares with her dementia-suffering father and overbearing mother (Geraldine James). Moll was expelled from school as a young teenager and spent the rest of her formative years being home-schooled. Her mother never forgave her.

One night, Moll escapes her dismal birthday party and goes out clubbing. She’s rescued from a sleazebag by a wiry stranger, Pascal (Johnny Flynn). He’s a rule-breaker and a heartbreaker. The family warn Moll off of him. But Moll is self-harming and borderline suicidal – what’s she got to lose by risking her life with a man the police suspect of being responsible for a spate of murders on the island?

Though Beast comes across as a period drama in modern clothing – it’s a world of privileged-class repression; of garden fetes and carol singing – it throws some curveballs into the mix, most notably the murder mystery aspect. There’s something slightly callous about the way the film adopts homicide as a personality quirk; a too-neat plot device that exists to satisfy character arcs. But it raises the stakes effectively – Pascal is a genuinely ambiguous figure.

Pearce’s screenplay is intricate but also nose-bleedingly on-the-nose at times. When Pascal first meets Moll and sees her cuts he says, “You’re wounded. I can fix that.” I mean, that’s not subtext, it’s just text. Moll delivers a lengthy voiceover at the start (never to return) about the way that killer whales go mad in captivity. (Yes, okay, we get it.) Then, later, as tensions fray and the drama becomes overwrought, we get outright clichés – when characters are screaming “What do you want from me?!” it feels like the bottom of the ideas barrel.

It’s a pity because the underlying story is intriguing and taps into dense existential themes. Pearce is an adept visual storyteller, and when his characters aren’t speaking, the messages come across loud and clear. When Pascal takes Moll through the woods at night, he senses her fear; so her response is to make love to him: sex as a defence against imminent death. Later, he takes her rabbit-poaching. Overcoming her anxiety, Moll’s eyes tell a story: she realises that her frustration has been going in the wrong direction – it should have been projected outward all along. She is capable of a different kind of harm.

Moll has been bullied her whole life, and her mother systemised this abuse, leaving her daughter crippled by guilt. In a great blindside, Moll’s dreams suggest she could be the killer. But could it just be her own excessive sense of responsibility? Endlessly resentful, Moll’s mother is a perennial menace of pure manipulation; a horribly plausible monster, skilled at contriving unwinnable arguments. The interplay between mother and daughter is tense and terrifying, and I wish there’d been more of it.

Sadly, like much in the film, it’s another in a myriad of intriguing threads which isn’t quite sewn to full satisfaction. While Beast is an admirable mashup of genres – murder mystery, cop thriller, existential horror, family drama et al – the precision plotting and the inexorable surge toward a pretty-bow ending dilute its constituent parts. The screenplay is refined to the bone, calculated to a point where empathy is a struggle.

But empathy lives, because one shining light glows like a beacon at the heart of the film: Jessie Buckley. She utterly embodies the character of Moll, which is no mean feat. It’s a deeply internalised performance – which makes the one moment where her rage erupts all the more powerful and heartbreaking. It’s harrowing to watch her be given opportunities to fight back at her bullies – a curse she carries into adulthood – only for her to revert to the safety of compromise and passivity.

The great Geraldine James revels in her role as a matriarch with too much conviction to recognise her own cruelty. Sadly, the leading male actors fare less well. As bad boy Pascal, Flynn is effectively sinister, but struggles to balance it with slippery charm – he just comes across as slimy. And Trystan Gravelle is too wooden to sell Clifford as an ex-military man with a black fire in his supposedly kind heart. He’s not helped by the writing of his character, to be fair – Clifford’s arc is the silliest of all.

Indeed, many of the contrivances in Beast are silly, but Pearce plays it all determinedly straight. A plot this fantastical could use some wry humour, but it’s grim to the point of parody. Like a Channel Islands David Fincher, no one seems to know where the light switch is. At one point, during a police interview, the lights literally turn off.

With its brooding, elemental score, its feminist slant and its small town perspective, I wonder what Lynne Ramsay or Clio Barnard might have made of the material. That Pearce can be mentioned in the same breath as those directors is a compliment – and on this fitfully impressive evidence, he may yet find a place alongside them.

Beast is out in cinemas from 27 April 2018.

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