Beast review: An impressive debut feature for Michael Pearce

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Michael Pearce, 104 mins, starring: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Charley Palmer Rothwell

Midway through writer-director Michael Pearce’s impressive debut feature, the troubled heroine Moll (Jessie Buckley), lets loose a shriek of such piercing intensity that two men who look intent on harming her immediately retreat. In the course of the film, we also see her smash a rabbit’s head to pulp and aggressively vandalise the final green at the local golf course.

She is now in her late 20s but there are constant references to an incident when she was 13 and she went after a classmate with a pair of scissors. She is a feral and rebellious soul, even if she does sing in the choir and look remarkably demure in her summer dresses.

Early on, the film seems to be shaping up as a modern-day, suburban version of Wuthering Heights. Moll has her very own Heathcliff figure in the form of Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who materialises out of nowhere to rescue her just when it looks as if she is about to be raped on the dunes.

Pascal isn’t big on personal hygiene. “I could smell him a mile off,” Moll’s disapproving mother Hilary (Geraldine James) holds her nose at the ruggedly handsome young poacher and delinquent.

The action unfolds in Jersey. Judging by events here, the crime rate hasn’t declined in the slightest in the years since TV’s detective sergeant Jim Bergerac was active on the island. A serial killer is on the loose. Victims are being dug up in potato fields.

Early on, we are made aware that Pascal is one of the prime suspects. He has been in trouble with the law before; he has a gun; we know that he is a hunter; he doesn’t have an alibi for the night on which the last victim went missing.

Director Pearce has clearly watched plenty of Hitchcock films. Much of the suspense hinges here, as in Hitchcock’s The Lodger or Suspicion, on whether the hero is a killer and on whether the heroine is in danger because she is with him. The screenplay is very cunning in the way it manipulates the audience. Pascal clearly has a capacity for violence but at least he is not one of the snobbish, middle-class islanders who are so censorious about anyone remotely non-conformist. Our sympathies are far more with him than they are with them.

Geraldine James is in enjoyably haughty form as Moll’s very stuck up mother. She provides some of the few comic moments in an otherwise very brooding and oppressive story. She has a wonderful mellowness of sneer and an infinite capacity for belittling her daughter.

Inevitably, migrant workers are targeted in the wake of the killings. To complicate matters further, the bumbling local detective has feelings for Moll – feelings which she doesn’t reciprocate in the slightest. (She doesn’t like his “smell,” she tells him pointedly.)

Pearce includes one or two violent nightmare scenes in which Moll dreams she is being assaulted. Disconcertingly, these are filmed in exactly the same style as the everyday scenes, which have a strange oneiric quality. 

Jessie Buckley gives a sly, sympathetic and sometimes creepy performance as Moll. She will seem like an ingenue one moment and then demonic the next. Her day job is as a tour guide around the island. She dresses in Hi-Di-Hi style costume and speaks cheerily from the front of a bus to tourists about local landmarks and history but we know just how tormented she really is. That much is made apparent early on, when she breaks a glass and then crushes the broken shards into her palm until it bleeds.

It is easy enough, though, to understand why Moll is so keen to leave such a tight little island. Everybody tells her what to do. Her mother criticises everything from the way she sings in the choir to her failings as a babysitter. No-one pays her much attention. During her own birthday party, her sister suddenly steals the limelight. Pearce shows her frequently in close up. In keeping with the title of the film, she has a feral quality. She is not as meek as she seems. 

Sometimes, the symbolism is on the portentous side. If characters are walking on the beach, waves will pound the shore. Forests are dark and haunting. At even the most idyllic seeming moments, there will always be a threatening under-current.

Johnny Flynn plays Pascal in much the same way as he did his young Welsh Jack the Lad, in love with a cellist, in the recent romantic comedy, Love Is Thicker Than Water. He is irreverent and impulsive – the opposite to all those buttoned up types Moll is surrounded by at home. He loves wildlife but that doesn’t stop him shooting hares and rabbits. He’s the “bit of rough:” the Mellors to the Chatterley-like heroine.

Taken as a realist drama, Beast has its cracks. The film never fully explains where Pascal fits in the island. He tells Moll’s family that he is descended from ancient nobles who came to Jersey centuries before. If he has lived there for so long, in such a close-knit community, it is surprising neither Moll nor her family have any idea who he is. His behaviour is sometimes as hard to understand as that of Moll herself. Then again, we are seeing events from Moll’s perspective, and she is a very unreliable and tormented figure. 

One of the pleasures here is the way Pearce combines Gothic elements and social satire. The film is full of sex, blood and death but the most disturbing scenes invariably take place in the most familiar locations – in churches or suburban gardens or hotel dining rooms or, creepiest of all, in a high street clothes shop. (This is where Moll comes face to face with the woman she attacked with a pair of scissors during her school days.)

In the end, the serial killer mystery elements are secondary. The film is more about mood and feelings than it is a whodunit. Beast a very arresting debut with a primal intensity about it that atones for the occasional clumsiness and contrivances in the plotting.

Beast hits UK cinemas 27 April.