Beast, the debut feature written and directed by Michael Pearce, is a mystery film whose intent is writ large from the outset.
Opening with a chorus of evensong enveloping picturesque sweeps of a small island, which we soon recognise as Jersey; the weather turns for the worse, and the choral harmonies touch a minor chord as we see a floral tribute to a young woman flapping in the wind on a cliff top – something is definitely afoot.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a twenty-something, bullied by a strict mother (Geraldine James on stone-faced matriarchal duties) and defined as the ‘black sheep’. Her place in herd is underlined when she is forced to retrieve champagne for her golden-girl sister, whose pregnancy announcement upstages her own birthday celebrations. Throw into the mix, Moll’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who requires constant care, emotionally tying Moll to live at home under the manipulative thumb of her mother. It’s clear that Moll wants to break her shackles, rebel and live a life that any ordinary young adult of her age would want, as she waits for private (and eventually public) pauses to violently express her frustration and shockingly vent.
The whole situation is at tipping point, and the second a window of opportunity presents itself, Moll runs and rarely looks back – drinking to excess, cavorting with men in the local bars and rebelling against the heavy expectations weighed upon her. Inevitably, these mutinous moments catch up with Moll, landing her in yet another predicament without her mollycoddling mother to save her. As the night's revelling until morning veers towards a sexual assault, an enigmatic, rough-shod loner saves the day – Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Together, they form a taboo-like relationship, crossing the class divide, in an effort to negate each other’s loneliness against the backdrop of a serial killer on the loose.
Buckley is outstanding in every scene
Beast typifies small-town/island life in a way that is both claustrophobic and true-to-life – everyone knows everyone and their exact business. It would be trite to say the screenplay never verges on stereotypes but, when it does, it’s sparing and immediately reined back in. This self-awareness is one of the strengths at the core of the film – as Moll flops from scene to scene, there’s a constant layering of her character and multiple shifts in her stance that could have been poorly handled. Buckley’s outstanding portrayal of Moll aids this greatly - she is nothing less than realistic and compelling in every scene, carrying the weight of the film for its duration. Flynn’s mysterious stranger, too, broods perfectly, avoiding pitfalls of clichéd reactions and delivering an authentic (if shady) ‘bit of rough’.
Beast ventures unwaveringly into morally ambiguous territory on several occasions, unafraid to utilise surrealist sequences to hammer its point home. It is this confidence of writing which makes the central murderous intrigue play second fiddle, allowing Buckley and Flynn’s nervous bond to hoodwink the audience into forgetting the thrilling mystery gently unfolding in the wings. And to his credit, Pearce’s command of this is masterful, as he weaves the two strands flawlessly in tandem – never overstaying his welcome in either camp, flowing from feeding plot to luxuriating in character studies, effortlessly.
Forays into feature filmmaking by first-time directors often end up being a glimmers of potential for their subsequent work; frequently beset by a combination of amateur scripts, limitations of budget or poor casting. However, Michael Pearce's debut impressively conjures the atmosphere of a worthy film through impeccable cinematography, (Benjamin Kracun, take a bow) which manages to maintain its British identity without going full-on Hollywood, and an underlying respect for its genre. The final third could be seen as faltering into trope-like territory (with shades of Neil Jordan’s UK cut of The Descent), but these stutters are few and far between, leaving much of the work to a carefully carved script and well-fleshed out characters, amid a postcard-perfect idyll of peninsula life and village fêtes.
One would hope that Pearce’s film becomes the standard bearer for British independent film
Its conceit is largely reliant on Buckley’s performance, which she hones down to something more complex than a subjugated young adult, and maintains a grounded realism when the script commands her to be unconventional. In time, one would hope that Pearce’s film becomes the standard bearer for British independent film. Beast never glorifies middle England, nor does it showcase itself as a by-the-numbers genre piece for mainstream audiences. It is a gorgeous and gripping film for its entire runtime – and even when the game is up, it will have you flummoxed as to where it will go next.
As murder-mysteries go, Beast is truly its own animal.