Director: Michael Pearce
Screenwriter: Michael Pearce
Australian release date: 13 September 2018
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 21 August 2018.
First-time director/writer Michael Pearce has wisely stuck with what he knows for his debut film Beast. The movie is set on the Channel Island of Jersey, where Pearce hails from, and it’s based on an actual series of murders that took place there in the 1960s, so he grew up hearing stories about ‘the beast of Jersey’. It’s a suitably wild and wind-swept location for this gothic tale somewhat in the vein of My Cousin Rachel, although in this film the gender of the person under suspicion is a handsome male rather than a beautiful female. Its ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ plot will keep you guessing until the end.
Moll Huntington (a tremendous performance by flame-haired Jessie Buckley) is living unhappily at home with her tyrannical mother Hilary (Geraldine James), her Alzheimer’s-affected father, her recently separated elder brother Clifford (Trystan Gravelle) and her younger sister. At a party in the yard of her home to celebrate her birthday, she wanders off, totally disenchanted with her dictatorial mum and the middle-class guests Hilary has invited (you get the impression Moll didn’t have much say in the party-planning). Later, making out with a guy she met in the pub, the pair are accosted by a poacher, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), when Moll’s paramour gets carried away and won’t take no for an answer. Immediately intrigued by the handsome stranger, she lets him give her a lift home and consents to seeing him again. Before long, she’s totally smitten but when a girl’s body is found, the fourth in as many years, she learns that Pascal is under suspicion for the murders. She knows that siding with him will pit her against her family and the community, yet she feels that there’s a bond between her and this dangerous dude and they are, in some way, kindred spirits because she too is harbouring a secret. Still, there’s a nagging doubt in her mind, a doubt she chooses to ignore despite, or perhaps because of, being warned off Pascal by Harrison (Oliver Maltman), the local copper who’s got the hots for her.
Beast is a highly atmospheric film that features a brilliant central performance by Irish actress Jessie Buckley, most of whose work to date has been on television (she recently appeared in Tom Hardy’s Taboo and will soon be seen in War and Peace, both on SBS TV). One hopes that her role here will bring her to the attention of other film producers; the ability she displays as Moll is extraordinary because this woman is an exceedingly complex character. She appears to wear her heart on her sleeve but her waters run deep and Buckley is able to make us relate to her while, in fact, we know very little about her. A lot of what Buckley reveals about Moll is written on her face and not verbalised. Flynn is not quite her match but that’s understandable in a way, because her portrayal is so strong. He certainly looks the part of Pascal, a ruggedly handsome outcast who lives by his wits and lives a semi-reclusive life.
Pearce’s script is clever and the tone he has created in Beast fits the material well. The plot is intriguing and its denouement original. It’s a mature debut effort and, if this is anything to go by, Michael Pearce is a filmmaker to watch.