A major theme running throughout the majority of contemporary British drama is that of repression and restraint or, more importantly, the consequences of repressing our desires and fears. No big surprise, really, considering the repressive nature of British culture in general. The rural English countryside often provides a perfect backdrop for the inner carnage bubbling under the surface of both the individual and society at large, an idyll that exists as a veneer, a direct juxtaposition of the dread lurking underneath. In some ways it has become a rather straightforward, arguably cheap, tactic to challenge an audience’s sense of comfort but, when approached with enough style, it retains its powerful effect.
Beast, the debut feature from British filmmaker Michael Pearce, is set in the extra-rural isle of Jersey and undoubtedly contains enough muted style and intelligence to elevate it over cosy television staples such as Midsomer Murders or Rosemary and Thyme. However, it is the attention paid to the sheer darkness in humanity that gives it a real edge. Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a reserved, middle-class woman who, on the eve of her 28th birthday, meets the enigmatic Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a working class ruffian who opens her eyes to the stifling constraints of her home life and overbearing mother. When Pascal is implicated in the murders of four local teenage girls, Moll chooses to stand by the only person who has ever shown her love, causing the island to turn against her and old wounds to reopen.
If the setting and themes of the film are a little overly familiar then it is the human complexity of the two mysterious central figures that give Beast its power to enthral. Both characters seem to have been written with detailed backstories in mind, giving Buckley and Flynn the opportunity to dole out the nuances of their respective roles slowly and carefully rather than melodramatically. Moll in particular bears the burden of being entirely charming and repulsive in equal measure, clearly conflicted by her beau’s potential murderous impulse whilst having to deal with her own darkness. Pearce’s script does well to acknowledge the reasons why Moll feels so in tandem with her newfound love interest (with the odd, forgivable dalliance of expository dialogue) whilst leaving us room to imagine her life before the cameras started rolling. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn’s performance as Pascal is far more idiosyncratic. You can feel Flynn trying not to slip too much into the prototype movie psychopath and whilst the charm shines through his grubby exterior, some people will find his calming monotone a little bit too fraudulent.
That being said, almost everybody on the island of Jersey seems to be fraudulent and/or an awful person. Even with a killer stalking the valleys and seafronts, Moll’s brutally dictatorial mother takes the cake as Beast’s most overt evil. Despite the part being played to perfection by Geraldine James, the matriarch being the root of all Moll’s personal digressions, in a film written and directed by a man is a dull contrivance. More interesting is Trystan Gravelle as Clifford, a local policeman and seemingly sincere admirer of Moll, whose reactions to her new relationship with a potential serial killer and ultimate betrayal of her trust weaves a far more intricate picture of what happens when small town desire and social etiquette come crashing together.
If Beast suffers from anything, it is the fact that even a cursory glance at the plot copy means the audience spends a large portion of the film merely waiting for the inevitable to happen, draining the film of some of its early tension. Despite this, the film is still a gorgeous exercise in cinematography, the screen often filled with a sparse eeriness, and clever sound design forcing the audience into Moll’s inner dissension. Pearce is not a particularly conspicuous director but his neat script and clear vision means this potentially tricky narrative is handled smartly and, whilst British film does not particularly need more rural murder mysteries, with characters and conflict as complex as this you can hardly complain.
Beast will be released in UK cinemas on 27 April 2018