Described as a ‘fairy tale for adults’, Michael Pearce’s debut feature film is able to capture his home island of Jersey with a brilliant yet terrifying blend of natural beauty and chilling sub-urbanity. The story at the core of Beast is deliberately simple: in a suffocating family atmosphere, a young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley) is drawn to rough outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn). All the while a serial killer is on the loose on the island.
The construct of Beast can lend itself to archetype and cliche, which for the leads is avoided through levels of nuance and clear inner conflict. Moll’s family however are sheer forces of antagonism in order to fuel Moll’s increasingly erratic choices. They exist only to frustrate, losing a level of family vs. independence struggle when it is such a one-sided battle.
This is really the story of Moll, and the difficult choices one may have to make in relation to the one you love. Most thrillers are filmed from the perspective of the detective or the killer, and that the framing of Beast that deliberately works against this adds to the film’s feeling of fable.
It would have been tempting to film an outright horror based on the real-life atrocities of The Beast of Jersey (from where the film takes its title), but this is certainly not the route Pearce wished to take. He has been bold in his artistic decisions, without suffering from the pretentiousness of ditching genre convention entirely. Like the best films of 70s Hollywood, the use of genre is giving the film a loose structure from which personality (particularly Molly’s) can be explored. Some character choices may be questionable and personalities stray from the archetypal to the two-dimensional, but the format is there and serves to maintain a level of uniqueness to the work.
Where Beast works best is in the scenes between Moll and Pascal. Jessie Buckley is able to capture the heartache and anger of a woman trapped, while the anger beneath the eyes of Johnny Flynn is reminiscent of a young Tom Hardy. There is also a deliberate contrast between the clipped, rigid framing of the family scenes with ethereal, handheld moments of the pair together, becoming of Terrence Malick and the central couple of Badlands.
Malick’s ability to combine arthouse sensibilities with genre conventions has also been Pearce’s goal in Beast. It is largely successful, especially in a finale where the right amounts of intense drama and character ambiguity are blended. There are moments prior that feel a little artificial in attempts to wring pathos for Moll, as she willfully enters into moments for reasons no other than self-flagellation. It was a bold move to put Moll’s perspective at the heart of the film, and despite these previous wobbles at the film’s conclusion this feels largely justified.
Even if fairy tale and murder thriller clash too awkwardly with art film character study at times, this remains an accomplished work and a positive sign for British cinema moving forward. Writer-director Pearce, along with stars Jessie Buckley andJohnny Flynn, have been placed firmly on the radar.
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