Film Review: Beast (UK, 2017) is a ferocious character study with an outstanding performance from Jessie Buckley

According to a book by renowned author Christopher Booker, there are seven different plots in stories, which are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

And since we have so many stories that essentially are encapsulated in one of these plots, what would make a story stand out from the large crowd? It would either be the execution of the story; or it could be the combinations of plots; or it could be the attempt to create unique and distinct characterizations. In the case of Michael Pearce‘s psychological crime drama, Beast, it is an attempt combine all three of the above.

Gaining critical buzz as the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 and this year’s Sundance Film Festival due to its intense story, combinations of genres and memorable performances, will it live up to the hype in this writer’s eyes? Or will it unleash the beast of the film critic within?

Set in the island of Jersey, a troubled young woman, Moll (Jessie Buckley) is in a state of oppression, thanks to the very short leash of her mother (Geraldine James). After leaving her own 27th birthday party, she goes into a nightclub to dance the night away.

The next morning, a man who she was dancing with threatens her with sexual violence until a mysterious outsider, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), helps her out of her predicament. The two eventually share a simmering chemistry, which drives Moll to escape her oppressive family. When Pascal comes under suspicion for a series of murders, she defends him at all costs.

The story of Beast was partially inspired by Edward Paisnel, the so-called “Beast of Jersey” who carried out a string of sex attacks on the island between 1960 and 1971. And while that plot is in the background, the plot in focus is about the character progression of Moll and her developing relationship with Pascal and thankfully, that is where the film succeeds.

First off, the direction by Michael Pearce overall works effectively in developing a brooding atmosphere and getting into the character’s skin. The cinematography by Benjamin Kracun captures the beauty of the Jersey island setting, lending it a Gothic fairy-tale quality; as well as the simmering passion and darkness within the characters like in a scene where Moll and Pascal embrace in the water.

Props should also go to the sparse musical score by Jim Williams, which provides ample tension as well as accentuating the emotional state of the characters succinctly i.e. during a scene involving a funeral.

The problem with the film is that some of its filmmaking techniques are so blatantly on-the-nose as to what it is metaphorically implying; that it becomes laughable. There is one specific scene that involves a full moon that implies that there’s a bad moon rising. Or in another scene where a police interrogation between a police detective (played excellently by Olwen Fouere) and Moll becomes so intense, a blackout happens, ruining the dramatic tension rather than accentuating it.

And when the film shifts from the relationship between Moll and Pascal to the serial killer plot, it becomes less interesting due to the lack of innovation and going by basic whodunnit tropes like incompetent rookie cops, grizzled veteran detectives, shifty strangers, exposition scenes involving interrogations, it follows them all to a T.

Thankfully, the performances from the cast just about make up for the film’s shortcomings. Jessie Buckley provides a masterful performance of nuance and absolute control of a woman who is emotionally repressed. The simmering rage, the wide-eyed innocence, the feral and rebellious attitude; Buckley nails every stage of her character perfectly and shoulders the film to the finish line.

Johnny Flynn lends a certain empathy and life to the magnetic, mysterious and enigmatic character of Pascal, who may or may not be the serial killer that the police are looking for. While that ambiguity is present, Flynn has such a charisma that it is easy to buy into the fact that Moll would be attracted to Pascal.

The other standout is Geraldine James as Moll’s mother. She easily convinces in conveying the oppressive, chilling side of her character. But what makes her performance great is that she also hints that she may not be as antagonistic as one might think, thanks to the paternal side that James conveys convincingly.

Overall, Beast is a compelling, if not entirely successful, character study that struggles to reach its goals due to director Michael Pearce‘s overzealous direction and some story contrivances and problems. But thanks to Jessie Buckley‘s powerhouse performance, she keeps the film grounded until the perfect moments when it needs to go primal to make a huge impact.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Beast hits cinemas on Thursday 13th September