Michael Pearce’s debut feature Beast, which played at the London Film Festival in October, is set on Jersey, and begins at a birthday party for Moll, who has the spotlight stolen from her by her sister’s announcement of an impending baby. Moll, who is kept well under the thumb of her domineering mother Hilary, escapes from the party and spends the night dancing. But when her dancing partner begins to get aggressively amorous on the beach in the morning, she is rescued by Pascal, carrying the rifle he’s been using to poach rabbits.

Part of the beauty of Beast lies in the constant contrast between the posh Bergerac world of Jersey, and the darker world underneath. Moll, a tour guide who shows visitors the island’s pleasant side from a bus, is also kept well under hell by her mother, made responsible for care of her invalid father. Pascal, the wild woodsman, begins to set Moll free, but we become aware there are secrets in her past. We also learn the island is being rocked by a series of kidnapping/murders of young girls, and as the relationship between Moll and Pascal deepens it becomes no real surprise that Pascal becomes a major suspect.

Beast depends on its stars to make this mix of stories and styles work, and they deliver. Irish actress Jessie Buckley is a revelation, hiding and releasing bits of her character in ways that only occasionally don’t surprise. She’s asked for a lot of emotion, but manages not to overwhelm Johnny Flynn as Pascal, who has to be even more of a chameleon, and present a charming face to the Jersey world to which he doesn’t belong. And Geraldine James, as Hilary, is a figure worthy of a horror film, holding in her own repressed fury and fear of her place in the island’s society.

Pearce’s script twists and turns while never losing the basic duopoly of its love story. There is so much contained passion and violence, he needs the sensitive camera of Benjamin Kracun to let the landscape, the seascape, the very atmosphere play against and with his story, bringing out elements of the gothic as well as the romantic, of crime and horror. Note the difference in the two posters for the film if you doubt me. The harsh meeting of sharp-edged rocks, cliffs and sea works perfectly here, and so too the confines of the small island. There is a scene inside a country club whose tightly pressed walls and fragile furniture and place settings almost demands to be spoiled. There’s another, an interrogation scene with the excellent Olwen Fouere as a police detective, which blends oppressive space and colour with her own hammering power.

Without getting into spoilers, it is difficult to express further admiration for the script, but as much as it keeps one guessing, plays with carefully placed reference, and builds and tests sympathies, it has an ending whose ambiguities are worthy of some great thrillers of the best. This is an assured and exciting first feature, in fact, I cannot remember a first British thriller I’ve enjoyed as much in years. And Buckley in particular is an acting talent to watch. Recommended wholeheartedly.

Spoiler Alert: do not read what follows if you’re very good at reading between lines, or if you’re sensitive to spoilers. But come back and read it after you’ve seen the film: 

At the screening I attended, there was some debate about which character was, in the end, the Beast, and Pearce said this was a source of argument whenever the film is show. But the movie’s title is not ‘the’ Beast, but Beast, and to me it seemed pretty clear, especially after the ending took me  away from the Thelma and Louise finish I thought had been set up. Pearce’s beast is not a person but a feeling that lurks in many of us, and something we need to recognise, understand and control in ourselves. This is what Buckley conveys so brilliantly, and what Flynn is so good at covering up.

 BEAST is on general release at of 27 April 

Note: this review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)

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