A seaside horror in Jersey: Michael Pearce’s Beast lacks much-needed wildness

But Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn are exceptional in this thriller with fairy-tale overtones.

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Beast is a promising British thriller with fairy-tale overtones; the “Beauty and the” is implied. It benefits from an underexposed location (Jersey, scarcely seen on screen since the days of Bergerac) and a twist on a formula used to best effect in Jagged Edge. In that 1985 hit, Glenn Close played a lawyer falling for her client (Jeff Bridges), who is accused of a string of brutal murders. In Beast, it is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a diffident young tour guide with ginger locks, who may have thrown in her lot with a wrong ‘un.

Moll, a Red Riding Hood working the “granny wagons” (a delightful phrase for the coachloads of pensioners she buses around the island), is kept on a short leash by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), who only has to arch one imperious eyebrow to bring her daughter instantly to heel. “I’m so sorry, Mum,” she whimpers. “It was irresponsible and thoughtless.” The offence? She went dancing on her birthday, staying out past the hour when carriages turn back into pumpkins.

Anything would seem preferable to the life Moll currently has, but the alternative represented by Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handyman and poacher, is particularly appealing. His ocean-blue eyes sparkle in a face as bristly and untended as the Jersey countryside. “You’re wounded,” he drawls, noticing a cut on her hand. “I can fix that.” Subtext alert!

The couple have hot sex in the woods (where else?), after which Moll delights in getting mud all over her mother’s soft furnishings. But wait. “There’s a killer stalking the island!” cries Hilary. Four young women have been asphyxiated with earth, the very land itself used as a deadly weapon. Fingers are pointing at Pascal but should Moll abandon him if he turns out to be guilty? Everyone has their flaws, after all: pee on the toilet seat, toenail clippings on the sofa. With the right help, perhaps murder is something a couple can work around.

Where the film departs interestingly from convention is in muddying the nature of the beast. It is Moll who plucks a long hair from her neck at the start of the movie (not her chinny-chin-chin) and she whose life has been changed by a violent act in her past. Imagine if it was still Glenn Close falling for Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge, except that instead of a cool-headed lawyer she was playing her character from Fatal Attraction. No bunnies were boiled in the making of Beast, though Moll does bash a rabbit’s head in.

While the film has pertinent things to say about what we do to people by branding them outsiders, it lacks some much-needed wildness and shows every sign of being over-thought and under-felt. The writer-director Michael Pearce has a first-timer’s eagerness to ensure we don’t miss anything, overloading the screen with metaphors, explanations and symmetry. In keeping with the Beauty and the Beast idea, the feral Pascal has an opposite number, a Gaston figure, in the shape of the police detective (Trystan Gravelle) vying for Moll’s affections; both men ask her within the film’s first ten minutes whether she can keep a secret. There is symbolism involving killer whales in captivity, and a dream sequence in which Moll rips off her attacker’s mask to reveal her own face underneath, Empire Strikes Back style.

The movie’s only outright bad scene involves a police interrogation during which the lights keep failing (“Not again!”), leaving everyone in the dark (get it?). “Are you protecting Pascal because you think he’s innocent or is this just another way of taking revenge on society?” a detective asks Moll. Directors who insist on leaving the audience no work to do for themselves may find their films playing to empty cinemas.

That’s not a fate that Beast deserves. Buckley and Flynn are exceptional, generating between them a conspiratorial eroticism; the seesawing dynamic ensures that there isn’t a scene in which one of them doesn’t seem at least mildly unnerved by the other. And the film’s big reveal is electrifyingly handled. Pearce could learn a thing or two, though, from Pascal. Keep your cards close to your chest, measure out your words as sparingly as buckshot and never forget the appeal of a bit of rough. 

Beast (15)
dir: Michael Pearce

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum