Following hot on the heels of the Lily James-starring Guernsey, here comes Beast, another Channel Islands-set drama featuring a BBC War and Peace alum. Yet, Michael Pearce’s film bears little resemblance to the more twee post-war romance, far stranger and darker, with ambiguous and dangerous central performances anchoring its twisty story of love and murder. It’s a superbly assured debut feature, intricately plotted, strikingly shot, and absolutely owned by Jessie Buckley in the lead. It’s a fearsome, star-making turn, Buckley able to switch a scene’s gear with the slightest glare or faltering smile, ensuring Beast is never less than utterly compelling.
Stuck with an appalling family in a small Jersey village, Moll (Buckley) seeks escapism any way she can, and the morning after one drunken night she meets mysterious outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn). She’s magnetically drawn to him almost immediately, and irrevocably smitten after it becomes obvious just how much her mother (Geraldine James) despises him. Pascal invites Moll’s nasty, boring relatives’ hatred, practically insisting upon it, and it’s not long before the pair cut themselves off from the rest of the world, even as a police investigation gets Pascal in its crosshairs.
Multiple girls have been abducted, raped, and murdered (in a case informed by the real Beast of Jersey from the 60s, Edward Paisnel), and as a previously convicted loner, Pascal is a prime suspect. Pearce keeps things unsolved for as long as possible, until we’re caught in the same mindset as Moll, unable to come to any concrete conclusions or even know quite what we think. It’s a clever, tangled plot, but never takes over the centre of the film, always peripheral to Moll’s internal journey. She’s haunted by vivid dream of herself committing acts of barbaric violence, and as we learn her dark past, we understand why.
Her relief at finding someone to take her away from her family means she makes rash decisions, or at least it appears that way at first, before a very gradual reveal that she might have her own deeper held motives for lying to the police and abandoning her previously held responsibilities. Buckley is often inscrutable, but not overly opaque, sympathetic all the way to a finale that asks a bit too much of itself, and when she lets Moll’s pain and fury loose, it can be terrifying. As her relationship with Pascal puts her in the spotlight after another girl turns up dead, self-appointed guardians of the island try to harass her, but she fends them off with a primal scream that jolts you upright, as does a painfully awkward toast at a family dinner.
Pearce and his DOP Benjamin Kracun capture the elemental power of the Channel Islands as well as their more idyllic side. Sparse forests and howling, sea-sprayed cliffsides offer fantastically wild backdrops to the romance and the mystery, and this sense of visual confidence pervades the whole film. The central pairing are brilliantly matched, not just in performances, but in carefully crafted looks. Moll’s pale porcelain features, accentuated by deep red hair, play off of Pascal’s scraggly beard, scars, and sunburn perfectly, polar opposites that can’t help but attract.
2017 – with God’s Own Country, The Levelling, and more – was a great year for British filmmaking debuts, and if we can get another couple of films this year like Beast, then that trend should carry forward in a very exciting way. It’s a tremendous achievement for all involved that should push Buckley in particular into the big leagues and mark the start of a really fascinating career for Pearce.