Beast (UK 2017)

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On the edge

Writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut has enough variants on a theme to engage and is blessed by Jessie Buckley (also in her first feature) as the protagonist. Although there is a serial killer ‘on the loose’, Pearce doesn’t play it as a straight thriller; the initial narrative conflict is occasioned by Moll’s (Buckley) burgeoning relationship with Johnny Flynn’s Pascal; the name may sound posh but he isn’t. The main focus is on social class disparity and prejudice; Flynn portrays the brooding character well, he clearly has some ‘dark secrets’, as he sensibly disregards bourgeois convention. The real star of the film, though, is Buckley.

I last saw her, she hails from Ireland, in Wild Rose where she played a Glaswegian ex-con trying to balance bringing up two children with a hedonist desire to be a country singer. In Beast she is a repressed bourgeois daughter of a domineering mother (Geraldine James channelling nastiness with great skill) in Jersey. In her short feature film career Buckley has shown chameleon-like qualities; it’s not just she looks different, she is different. She also had a supporting role in Judy (UK-US, 2019) where she was similarly virtually unrecognisable (unless you knew it was her). Imdb lists no less five features for her this year, though that, of course, won’t be happening now. She’s definitely one to watch because she’s brilliant.

Buckley subtly portrays the bludgeoned, buttoned-up Moll, who’s being positioned to be the main carer for her Dad who has dementia, as someone with rebellion just beneath the surface. Moll was home schooled due to bullying and there was a violent incident when she wasn’t the victim; she has ‘dark secrets’ too. The director is excellent in portraying the supercilious ‘golf club’ set: when Pascal turns up to a ‘do’ in black jeans Moll’s sister-in-law, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), says, with reference to the clothing ‘faux pas’, “You know what they’re like here.” It’s a great line showing the way bourgeois rules are seen to be separate from the people who adhere to them. Polly is as shallow as the rest of them.

Pearce’s direction is also interesting; he’s not averse to expressionist angles and sound of the sea, in particular, is used with great effect. As the narrative progresses the almost inevitable alignment, as far as the bourgeois conformists are concerned, between the serial killer and Pascal occurs: the question is, “how well do we know people we’ve recently met even if they have become lovers?” Despite this there’s enough in the ending to avoid cliche ensuring that Pearce is a talent to watch too.

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