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After the whimsy of last week’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the real-life dramas of 2017’s Another Mother’s Son, the Channel Islands become home to something altogether more eerie in this Jersey-set debut feature from writer-director Michael Pearce. Charting a turbulent relationship between a cloistered young woman and the vagabond man who turns her world upside down, Pearce’s increasingly intense psychological thriller deftly overturns expectations as it dances between timeless fable, modern romance and murder mystery. Superb central performances from rising stars Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn provide the visceral spark that fires the story – a game of psychological cat and mouse in which desire and danger, innocence and guilt, are intriguingly intertwined.
Buckley is on phosphorescent form as flame-haired islander Moll, a twentysomething misfit who is still firmly under the thumb of her domineering mother. While her siblings have long since spread their wings, Moll remains trapped within the family home, helping to care for her ageing father, rigidly controlled by her choir-mistress mum, Hilary (Geraldine James). When Moll meets gun-toting woodsman Pascal (Flynn), his Heathcliff-like charms awaken passionate responses, encouraging Moll to break away from her suffocating home life.
Meanwhile, a spate of killings has cast a cloud over this picturesque isle, with the finger of suspicion pointing toward Pascal. Yet Moll has secrets of her own, is haunted by the spectre of a violent childhood assault, and the whispered warning that “Moll’s a wild one…”
Although the narrative may contain a distant echo of a grisly real-life case from the 1960s, Beast owes a greater debt to the traditions of the fairytale, and is cut from the same inspirational cloth as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, with a touch of the stranded desperation of Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago. The title, which is deliberately ambiguous, seems to allude to Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s beloved Beauty and the Beast, but there’s also a whiff of Walerian Borowczyk’s controversially erotic (and once-banned) La Bête.
Certainly, there’s a subversive European flavour to Pearce’s ambitious Brit-pic that keeps us guessing about its characters’ motives as it slides between genres (melodrama, crime thriller, beastly chiller) with ease. Tonally, I was reminded at times of François Ozon’s deeply unsettling Regarde la mer, with its sharp juxtaposition of sensual island sunshine and murderously dark deception.
Crucially, Pearce, who made a splash with shorts such as Rite and Keeping Up With the Joneses, steers clear of identifying any specific character as the “Beast” of the title – of which there may be more than one. Like Rachel Weisz’s anti-heroine in Roger Michell’s recent remake of My Cousin Rachel, Flynn plays Pascal’s guilt or innocence close to his chest, conjuring an enigma who simultaneously attracts and repels. Yet Buckley’s Moll is just as slippery, seeing a kindred spirit in her outcast lover, finding parallels with her past in his predicament. (At one point, Moll compares herself to a captive killer whale – smiling but deranged.) “You’re wounded,” says Pascal pointedly on their first meeting. “I can fix that.” Perhaps this is why she defends him even in the face of supposedly damning evidence. Or maybe she’s just blinded by passion, unable to see her lover for what he really is.
While Beast pulses with sweeping primal themes, it’s the details that ensure that it gets its claws into an audience. An early scene in which Moll is casually sidelined at her own birthday party speaks volumes about her family history and the yoke under which she now struggles. Later, she digs her muddy nails into the family sofa – a powerful image of lusty defiance. As Hilary, Geraldine James is impressively oppressive, but there’s a hint of terror behind her authoritarian manner. She may be a scary mum, but Hilary is also clearly frightened of her daughter – of what she might do, what she might become.
Contrasting the breathtaking vistas of the Jersey exteriors with the conservative confines of Moll’s home-life interiors (the latter were shot in Surrey), Pearce and cinematographer Benjamin Kračun conjure an archetypal landscape in which disparate worlds collide. As Moll moves from one environment to the other, so the form of the film itself shifts, with elegantly orchestrated compositions giving way to more free-form, handheld sequences. The result is a smart and sinewy psychodrama that maintains a delicate balance between its warring elements right through to the final frames.
The furniture on this review was amended on 29 April 2018 to correct a description of Irish actor Jessie Buckley as British.
Source: The Guardian
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