Director: Michael Pearce
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle
As we’ve recently had The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it’s probably only right Jersey has its turn (second time within a year, after 2017’s Another Mother’s Son). But what makes this Channel Island-based film different to its contemporaries, however, is that not only is the director, Michael Pearce, a Jersey-born chap, he also chose to film Beast’s exteriors on the island (with the interiors shot in Surrey). Although the premise could really be shot anywhere, unlike TGLAPPPS and Another Mother’s Son, which are specific to the 1940s German-occupied islands, the story calls for a small, claustrophobic surrounding, with its dark tone and suffocating familial themes. This all sounds like potential for a very intriguing and beautifully shot film, but how does Beast really rate amongst other island-based films and on its own two feet?
For a start, the story itself is superb. Moll (Buckely) is a young woman living at home with her controlling, mind-games-loving mother (James) and her dementia-ridden father (Tim Woodward). After not particularly “enjoying the company” at her own birthday party, she takes herself off to a club, where she meets Leigh (Charley Palmer Rothwell). In the early hours of the next morning, Moll and Leigh are messing around on a grassy knoll when Leigh starts to get a bit overly friendly. As Moll rebuffs Leigh’s unwanted physical attention, another man, Pascal (Flynn), wanders over to intervene. Moll and Pascal get to know each other, and so a relationship begins to build between them. Of course, it’s not without its trouble. A spate of murders recently, and continue to, plague the island, and Pascal is a suspect. Moll has to decide if she loves and knows Pascal enough to stand by his side, or if she’ll pay attention to whatever it is that is nagging her about the darker side of Pascal, that side where something doesn’t quite seem right.
The thoughtfully written narrative, also by Pearce, works well in tandem with the plot. Moll is consistently put down by her mother, who seems to think the world, or at least Moll, owes her something. Although Moll is initially rather a wilting flower, Pascal brings out another side to her that has reared its head once before but long since been repressed. Her dialogue isn’t often lengthy; Pearce has done a great job of keeping her lines short but meaningful. At times some of the dialogue can seem a bit obviously metaphorical: when Moll and Pascal meet, Moll has a cut on her hand. Pascal says, “You’re wounded. I can fix that.” A rather blatant code for ‘I see your inner pain, and I can help to make it better’. It’s easy to forgive such figurative speech, however, as the story progresses in a way that distracts you from being given potential spoilers.
Moll makes for a dynamic character, and Jessie Buckley was absolutely the perfect choice for her. With the flash of a sideways grin here and a thoughtful look there, Buckley fully brings Moll to life. Johnny Flynn, for his part, portrays Pascal to such a level that it’s difficult for the audience to ever really know if he is guilty or not, just as Moll feels, though something in his demeanour says that he very well could be. If this is what Pearce was going for, then his casting and direction of his actors is absolutely spot on. Geraldine James as Moll’s mother Hilary is also very good; very quickly you come around to detesting Hilary and wishing Moll would stand up to her, and that is testament to James’ performance.
As lovely as it is that the film’s exteriors were shot in Jersey, Pearce doesn’t go overboard and make a film that appears to be more of an homage to his home than one that uses the island and its history as a necessity for the story. He captures wonderful scenes of the coast, some amazing sunrises, but all of this adds to the context of the story: Moll, like her situation with her family, is stifled on the island, which is only a nine-by-five-mile rock, at one time professing she wishes to leave. Pascal becomes like this ray of light, a sunrise, in her life. But there’s also the darkness to the story, represented in some dusky scenes, the potential guilt of Pascal and Moll’s own inner turmoil, both reflected in that grey area between day and night. Perfect fodder for film students. Even the plot point of the murdering of young girls is a direct reference to the Beast of Jersey, Edward Paisnel, a man who would attack women and children in their homes at night in the 1960s. Parts of the story are based on events surrounding the case, and so it gives Beast more of its groundings in being set in Jersey.
As far as anything set in the Channel Islands goes, whether it be a recent film or Bergerac (ask your Gran), there hasn’t really been a film like this that has had a fairly wide release whilst also being more of an artsy, indie film with depth (or that isn’t set pre-1950). Pearce has utilised the island in a way that isn’t all sunshine and white beaches (at least not for the whole 104 minutes). The isolation and smothering that can accompany living in such a confined place (something I can attest to, being from Jersey, as you may well know if you’ve read my TGLAPPPS review) is thoroughly palpable through Beast’s characters and even the production design – the hedges that surround Moll’s house create another barrier between her and the life she could be living. Although Beast is comparable in some ways to other Jersey/Guernsey films, it completely sets itself apart by being something new and interesting. Pearce does his home and the inhabitants proud with his depiction of aspects of island life whilst telling a story many locals will reel in more horror at than the average movie-goer. The story itself is a sturdy one, well-written and executed. It’ll be exciting to see what Pearce does next.