Film Review: Beast is a moody and stylish debut from director Michael Pearce

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Set on the island of Jersey with a serial killer at large, Beast is a raw, atmospheric thriller anchored by two enigmatic performances from Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, writes Natalie Stendall.

Buckley radiates emotional confusion and bitter defiance in her first major film role as the suffocated daughter of a cold, controlling and socially ambitious mother (a frosty Geraldine James).

Like an animal caught in a trap, Moll seeks escape and beneath a collected, sometimes ashamed exterior, she relishes her own small insurrections. When Moll becomes drawn to Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a brooding stranger with a criminal past, part of the attraction lies in his provocative remarks and subtle transgressions.

The rape and murder of young girls on the island plays out on the periphery, but Pascal’s indefinable strangeness invites our suspicions.

Are we watching the seduction of a troubled young woman by a serial killer? And could Moll be enticed to commit violence? Beast feels uncomfortably close to the bone here, the magnetic relationship oozing with the inky black details of true crime stories.

But nothing here is cut and dried. Debut writer-director Michael Pearce pumps the atmosphere with doubt, unravelling the characters carefully. As Moll’s own troubling emotional past begins to emerge, Beast takes on an immersive psychological dimension.

Pascal himself is a troubling romantic hero of the Brontë variety. As a poacher and island native, he is bound with nature and through him we explore the wildness of humanity. Like Heathcliff before him, Pascal’s emotional reticence projects a dark, mysterious aura. He possesses both gentleness and passion, laying bare a propensity for violence.

The love affair is intoxicating and powerfully elemental. Reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, the connection between Moll and Pascal is grounded in the earth, water and air with naturalistic sound and imagery. The civilised world of country clubs and choral music clash with their organic and instinctive bond.

The setting for amorous encounters - a precarious cliff top and the dark, fertile loam of a forest floor - are as ferocious as they are romantic. Through the visceral physicality of the environment, Pearce ties love to nature, life and death.

As the final act crams together a number of important plot developments, it feels like Pearce might have lost his grip, but the considered and genuinely ambiguous performances of Buckley and Flynn leave us with much to digest. Beast is a moody and often stylish debut, its themes barely contained by its deliberately obscure finale.