Beast review: Jessie Buckley mesmerises in this bloodcurdlingly brilliant romantic-horror.
Beast review by Abi Silverthorne.
Michael Pearce’s feature film debut as writer-director has it all. At once an intoxicating portrait of suppressed family grudges, a romantic headspin with perfectly cast, chemistry inducing leads, and a truly stirring mystery, this is a visceral experience; touching and repulsing, wild and immaculately made, unsettling and inviting — it’s the cinematic equivalent of lemon and sugar.
Jessie Buckley plays Moll, a wilting Cinderella under the heel of her intense, gas-lighting mother (Geraldine James giving a masterclass in how to be terrifying through sheer teeth-gritting restraint). Moll is slightly broken beneath the weight of her family’s expectations: she must look after her brother’s child when he is late; she must fetch the good champagne for her sister’s baby announcement that overshadows her own birthday; she must care for her confused father, and she must, most importantly, never do anything uncouth, for fear of reverting back to her past where a devastating crime she is guilty of lies. Her mother thinks she has made ‘progress’, and whatever Moll does, she cannot begin to behave like the younger self that committed such a terrible mistake.
But this is a film about the transgression of repression, not the repression itself, and so enters Pascal, saving Moll from a potential assault after she runs off to a club to escape her own birthday party, by nothing less than pelting the perpetrator with pebbles and threatening to shoot him. He literally appears like Heathcliff from the sand dunes, suitably rugged and the perfect broody, untamed mismatch to Moll’s shy and painfully upper-class trappings. They appear, at first, to be exactly what the other needs. This is when the amazing connection Flynn and Buckley created is most potent. From the start, they look at each other as if they already know where it is all heading, as inevitable as the tide coming in around them.
Before long he is coming round the house, frustrating Moll’s mother and tempting Moll from the pure path. The slow-burning dance of their courtship is enchanting and easy to fall for, but it doesn’t, of course, last.
The disappearance and murder of five young girls haunt the small island community and the film from a distance, seen only on tv reports and through beautiful shots of memorials (portraits, flowers) pinned to posts, and pale, limp hands emerging from the soil. This is until it comes hurtling to the forefront of the story, and to Moll and Pascal’s relationship, as he is accused of the crimes and subsequently the entirety of the paranoid, white-collar villagers turn on them—including Moll’s family. She must choose where she stakes her moral stand, with the relatives that resent her, or the boyfriend that she truly wants to believe, despite her misgivings.
As the fairytale story of their love is darkened and marred by doubt, all we know for sure is that there is a wolf about.
The idea of who might be the dangerous one is a taut physiological thrill ride; like lines in the sand, the border between whoever is the titular Beast and who is innocent is forever being drawn and redrawn. Moll’s past crime resurfaces over and over in chilling dreams where she floats like a specter through her own house, is chased and chases is attacked and attacks. Pascal, thanks to Johnny Flynn’s awesome on-screen presence, always has something behind his eyes, just behind the softness, something other— and he doesn’t have an alibi. Or, the film suggests, it could be prejudice is the beast, as the townspeople, turned insular and hard from their separation to the mainland, don’t trust people of colour (the couple at one point intervening in a racial hate crime) or people of Pascal’s background.
As the film takes its time exploring each dark possibility, it is the performances, and Pearce’s poetic screenplay, that really light it up. It’s a cast where no one is wasted or fails to stun at some point, from Flynn’s aggressive explosions to Olwen Fouere’s mad cameo as a mainland investigator viciously desperate in her desire to put Pascal behind bars during one of the most intense interrogation scenes of recent memory. But Buckley is the star. She is astonishing as a girl losing her grip with all trust for herself, (“I’m a good person” she weeps, uncertain) as well as her partner. It’s the best, most fascinating, rip-roaringly unhinged performance of her career. It’s Sissy Spacek’s Carrie anew. She deserves all the accolades that should hopefully come her way for this.
Beast examines the potential reasons as to why we presume the guilt of the murders on the people we do: judging from the outside. It wants you to know that everyone may have a part of them that could have done it that lingers, alternatively, on the inside—that every human is a monster but for the skin they wear.
Everything in this film is geared towards suspense, form the foreboding setting to the swift gear changes in the acting and characterisation of every person, to the slow-drip reveal of Moll and Pascal’s past. It’s as if we are being told a bedtime story we shouldn’t be hearing, something that equally lulls and makes you want to hide under the covers.
The ending also, fortunately, manages the spooky feat of being totally satisfying, totally disturbing and yet still totally open to interpretation.
With some of the most unforgettable imagery and momentous performances of the year, Beast is not one to miss, or to stop thinking about for a long while. Pearce’s first foray into feature films is as good as it gets.
Beast review by Abi Silverthorne, April 2018.
Beast is released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th April.