'Beast': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Wild at heart, weird on top, but pretty wonderful.

Newcomers Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn make indelible impressions, as does first-feature director Michael Pearce, with this atmospheric British thriller set on the island of Jersey.

British thriller Beast takes a fistful of tired old tropes — like a hunt for a serial killer, and the ‘ol Joe Eszterhas-style is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-baddie tease — and manages to fashion something fresh, fierce and quite striking from them. A huge portion of the credit should go to Jessie Buckley (who made a vivid impression in the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace and on the London stage in A Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade), starring here as an intense young woman haunted by her own past. She’s drawn to an enigmatic outsider played by Johnny Flynn (equally a knockout recently in the Royal Court production of Hangman). Although the combustible chemistry between the two leads would be sufficient to power a small factory let alone a film, no less deserving of praise is writer-director Michael Pearce, making his feature debut, who really juices up the pic with stylistic flair and an eye for telling detail.

The action unfolds on the island of Jersey off the British south coast, a genteel tax haven known for its striking landscapes, quaint tea shops and the rampant sexual abuse of minors in state-run children’s homes over many years. Jersey also happened to be where a notorious lone attacker, known as the Beast of Jersey, raped women and children in their own homes for more than a decade starting in 1960, a case that Pearce has acknowledged as an inspiration here. Some British viewers might also note that Buckley, with her ringlets of red, nape-long hair, and blond/blue-eyed Flynn together bear a strong resemblance to Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley, the lovers implicated in the murder of two girls in Soham in the early 2000s.

That background information sounds like it’s spoiling the ending, but Pearce keeps the identity of the killer ambiguous right up to and perhaps even at the end, depending on how one reads the final scene. What’s more important here is not who's done what, but what draws us to danger and how much a victim can also become an aggressor and vice versa.

Pearce and his production and costume designers (Laura Ellis-Cricks and Jo Thompson, respectively) run a little virtual Vaseline on the lens to make the time setting hard to pin down at first. In her floofy yellow party dress, Moll (Buckley) looks like a debutante in the early 1960s when she’s seen in an early scene preparing for her own birthday party. Pissed off when her evening is upstaged by her “perfect” older sister’s (Shannon Tarbet) announcement that she’s having twins, Moll slips away from the party and the controlling grasp of her mother Hilary (the always welcome Geraldine James) and heads for the local nightclub. (The electronic dance music thumping in the background suggests the timeframe is actually modern-day).

There, she’s almost raped outside by a guy she picks up in the club, but Pascal (Flynn), a passing game poacher, comes to her rescue. Covered in interesting nicks and scars, the ultimate bit of sexy rough, Pascal is a working-class loner who moves in quite different circles to Moll, working as a tour guide on tourist buses and singing in the church choir conducted by her mother. But something about the dead rabbits and the feral smell of Pascal attracts Moll, who has her own dark past, having once gotten into serious trouble for attacking a schoolmate as a girl.

When the police turn their attention to Pascal as a suspect after yet another young girl has been found raped and murdered in the woods, Moll cleaves even closer to him, determined to stand by her man despite the judgment of her mother, her family and society in general.

The suspense is competently eked out, but what’s more interesting here is the way Pearce and his collaborators twiddle the dials with disconcerting use of sound and zooms that create an awesome Nic Roeg-style retro vibe, and an unsettling use of space that makes the natural world feel much more like a place of danger rather than beauty. Per the film’s press notes, the crew only filmed for a week on the real Jersey itself, and one has to wonder if the local film commission might have possibly had issues with the script that hardly paints the island in the most flattering light.

Taking the theme suggested by the title and really running with it, Buckley and Flynn both have terrifically expressive, interestingly not-quite-perfect faces, full of character and intelligence. Each projects a feral sexuality, a rangy angularity that’s reminiscent of graceful wild animals, beautiful but dangerous, and watching them at work is like seeing a superior wildlife documentary with sex and slaughter thrown in for good measure. In a good way.

Production companies: Agile Films, Stray Bear Films
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Trystan Gravelle, Geraldine James, Shannon Tarbet
Director-screenwriter: Michael Pearce
Producers: Ivana Mackinnon, Lauren Dark, Kristian Brodie
Executive producers: Myles Payne, David Staniland, Natascha Wharton, Sam Lavender, David Kosse
Director of photography: Benjamin Kracun
Production designer: Laura Ellis-Cricks
Costume designer: Jo Thompson
Editor: Maya Maffioli
Music: Jim Williams
Music supervisor: Jen Moss
Casting: Julie Harkin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival

Sales: Protagonist Pictures

107 minutes