Jessie Buckley delivers a star-making turn in mystery-romance Beast
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Jessie Buckley delivers a star-making turn in mystery-romance Beast

Beast
107 minutes, rated M
Written and directed by Michael Pearce
★★★½
Selected cinemas
REVIEWER Jake Wilson

Superficially, Moll (Jessie Buckley), the protagonist of Michael Pearce’s Beast, is a nice, respectable girl. Single and in her late 20s, she lives with her upper-middle-class parents on the island of Jersey, sings in the church choir and works as a tour guide, pointing out the local sights from the bus.

But there’s another side to Moll, who stands out from her surroundings not only physically – with her sharp face and mop of red hair – but in other ways as well. She often acts much younger than her age, remaining under the thumb of her straitlaced mother (Geraldine James). Her manner at home is reserved, even sulky, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, emerging in the occasional rude comment or spontaneous gesture of affection.

Much about her suggests a prisoner looking for a chance to escape – and she does so, after a fashion, when she flees her own birthday party, heads for a nightclub, and has to fend off some unwanted advances before local poacher Pascal (Johnny Flynn) steps in.

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Despite the class barrier, Moll and Pascal have an instant connection: the romance that develops from here has a touch of D.H. Lawrence, with a macabre twist. A serial killer has been preying on young women, and Pascal becomes a suspect in the investigation. Moll loyally stands by him, but does she actually believe in his innocence, or is something in her attracted to the idea of being courted by a murderer?

As a premise for a psychological thriller, this could be handled in different ways. A director like the late Claude Chabrol would have presented Moll and Pascal as specimens to be studied from a distance with mordant amusement.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) and Pascal (Johnny Flynn) in Michael Pearce's feature debut <i>Beast</i>.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) and Pascal (Johnny Flynn) in Michael Pearce's feature debut Beast.Credit:Icon Films

Pearce takes a different route: as a first-time writer-director, he often seems to be following the lead of the very gifted Buckley, a performer we’ll undoubtedly be seeing more of. (This is her first major big-screen role, though she’s worked extensively in British theatre and TV.)

Rather than playing Moll as an unsettling mystery, she keeps her emotions very close to the surface. And for all the character’s oddities, she has a lock on our sympathy from the outset.

But Beast has a number of obvious weaknesses, among them the fact that one lead performance is much stronger than the other. Flynn is effective in the sense that his laid-back manner could plausibly be the shallow charm of a psychopath, but when deeper revelations are called for he doesn’t entirely come through.

Part of the trouble here is in the dialogue, which turns wooden at key moments, spelling out things that might have been better conveyed without words. Pearce also faces difficulties in modulating from realism into nightmare, as in an odd, telling moment when he goes out of his way to justify the improbably low lighting in an interrogation scene.

All the same, this is a film of some power, and one that doesn’t flinch from following its more disturbing implications through to the end.