❉ Michael Pearce’s first feature-length project is a horrific, psychological character study.
“Jessie Buckley delivers a fiercely, sympathetic performance in this gothic, rural take on the suspicious spouse thriller elevated by a real visual sheen that presents a sleepy island community coming apart from the inside. Geraldine James compliments these performances with her portrayal of a subtly domineering and controlling mother. Pearce directs with a sure hand in this impressive feature length directorial debut”
When it comes to onscreen fame it is fair to say the island of Jersey is mainly known for Bergerac. John Nettles chased smugglers and investigated the odd murder or two for what seemed like the entirety of the nineteen eighties under sunny skies to that immortal theme tune. Beast, Michael Pearce’s impressive feature length directorial debut keeps the sunny shores and vast green fields but instead presents the island as backdrop to a young woman’s life as it descends into a dangerously emotional and mental maelstrom when she falls in love with a possibly dangerous loner.
The premise and its location suggest an ITV Monday night drama, the kind that fades into obscurity as the end credits roll. Beast however fends off such comparisons from the very beginning with its choral score and camera prowling around the island to show us shrines for abducted and murdered teenage girls. Among those we see providing the choral score is Moll, Jessie Buckley, who is then sharply and subtly criticised by the conductor who happens to be her mother, played by Geraldine James.
This subtly twisted familial relationship is just the first of a number of circumstances that Moll has to suffer through on a continuous basis. Here is a 27-year-old woman still living at home, forced to take care of her mentally ailing father, taken advantage of by the rest of her family and friends and still treated as a child. It is little wonder then that she takes to the arms of Pascal, Johnny Flynn, a rough and ready poacher who saves her from an assault after a rare night out and who actually shows a selfless interest in her. This interest triggers a rebellion within Moll when her mother makes her disapproval of him clear and a passionate romance ensues that in turn sets off an emotional tailspin that spreads over the rest of the film turning it into an intimately horrific, psychological character study.
Jessie Buckley delivers a fiercely, sympathetic performance that as the film progresses has the viewer squirming in discomfort. Certain choices that the character makes after Pascal comes under suspicion of murdering the local girls could come across as wildly melodramatic and out of place but Buckley, and Pearce’s script, ensures that the audience remain on side with her whilst maybe not in complete agreement with her actions which become more and more unpredictable. Johnny Flynn’s performance manages also to elicit sympathy and mistrust from both Moll and the audience, his rough and ready poacher/handyman shows real wit and warmth when standing up for Moll against her family but then shows an unsettling edge when confronted about his concealed past. Geraldine James compliments these performances with her portrayal of Moll’s subtly domineering and controlling mother. It is a part that could have been played to the rafters as a wicked parent but James presents her in a more believable and disturbing light, her clipped tones and not-so-subtle put downs show a real emotional viciousness that only rarely comes out and is then creepily followed up with the request to her daughter for “being best friends again.”
Pearce directs with a sure hand, contrasting Jersey’s sun dappled roads and fields against its vast, dark forests where one can get lost or lose themselves in their own senses. The locals to be found among these surroundings can be a vicious lot with their parental and Brexit-fuelled suspicions and all the while Moll is heading towards a personal realisation that could be making or breaking of her.
If it all sounds a bit like a more cerebral take on the type of film that Joe Esztherhas used to rattle out in the 80’s and 90’s it easily manages to be much more than that; a near gothic, rural take on the suspicious spouse thriller elevated by a real visual sheen that presents a sleepy island community coming apart from the inside. The performances and characterisation elevate it further and the plot is unpredictable, resulting in an unnerving conclusion which provides more questions to linger over after its ending.
❉ ‘Beast’ (Protagonist Pictures) stars Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, and Geraldine James; it receives its UK release on April 27, 2018. Cert: 15. Running time: 102m 6s.
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.