Beast, 14th June 2018
I can be pretty certain I am going to thoroughly enjoy a film in a cinema. I can go when pretty much no-one else is there, to a showing near the end of a run, which satisfies my misanthropy and intolerance of distraction, and I can rely on the combination of known critics, cast and directors, to near guarantee success. And, unlike the theatre or a concert, the very “static’ nature of film, there is only one possible performance, further pre-empts disappointment.
The only real question then is just how good is the film going to be and is it in with a chance of entering my mental best ever lists. Beast is superb and most definitely does. Any concerns that I had that this might drift a little too far into genre territory plot-wise were entirely unfounded. In fact it effortlessly slips and slides between genres to promote a satisfying sense of discomfort, if that makes sense.
This is director Michael Pearce’s feature film debut. He is plainly an immense talent and it is no wonder this got financed. Gripping story, superb performances, beautifully shot and a clear, but not simplistic message, about the impact of “outsiders” on a “settled” community. Above all though it has bucket-loads of utterly believable suspense. A genuine thriller but without daft McGuffins or false motivations. If you are a scion of the ubiquitous crash, bang, wallop school of Hollywood blockbusters this probably isn’t for you. But, rest assured, neither is it anywhere near the cinema of pretentious, European navel-gazing that is my usual menu de jour.
Moll is a tour guide in her 20’s trapped in a stiflingly bourgeois middle class family on the island of Jersey. Mum Hilary is the worst kind of snob, Dad is incapacitated with Alzheimer’s and needs constant care, smug brother Harrison leaves tween daughter to the care of Mum and Moll, immaculate sister Polly is a social climber now boastfully pregnant. It opens at Moll’s birthday party where she is the very definition of “putting a brave face on it”. Time to turn to the drink, walk out, pop some pills, go to a club, find with a bloke, stay out all night and have a quick shag behind the old gun battery by the beach. Except that said bloke tries to coerce her. Enter the handsome, if slightly rough-looking stranger, Pascal, who sees off the creepy bloke at gunpoint. Couple up with the stranger much to the disgust of family. Secure freedom …. but at a price …. as Moll and Pascal chase each other, and are chased, down the “did-they, didn’t-they” rabbit hole.
In many ways this is not an entirely fresh plot, though in C19 novels, both classic and/or melodramatic, and plays of old, it often involved married, or about to be married, women seeking to escape into the arms of an enigmatic, or worse, outsider. This, though, couldn’t be more contemporary, by laying on top the investigation of a crime, like the best murder mysteries, (though this is no Bergerac, people), and through the dissection of class and xenophobia. Johnny is a local, boasting he can trace his lineage back to Norman times. He may be lying. Moll’s family are presumably monied incomers. Migrant workers come to pick potatoes are vilified. Jersey looks lovely but feels parochial. Bubbling underneath though is something very primal. Michael Pearce grew up in a Jersey which remembered being terrorised by a serial rapist and paedophile in the 1960s, Edward Paisnel, which provided the spark, but wisely no more, for his wily screenplay.
As if this wasn’t enough we are also made to continuously question the nature of Moll and Pascal’s passion and just how much Moll knows or wants to know about Pascal. Both have dark secrets and unpredictable outbursts. The final collision, played out in close-up at a scenic beachside restaurant, is a belter.
Now you can see from the sound of all of this, that, with all that they have to convey, only the very best of actors was going to be up to the task of playing Mol and Pascal. Step up Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Now I know my regular reader will find this hard to believe, given my oft-repeated distaste for musicals, but I actually found myself watching a couple of episodes of I’D Do Anything on the telly all those years ago, the brain-child of the slightly odd Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Our Jessie was robbed at the end but anyone with any sense could see what an immense talent she was. That is why I watched despite myself. She then, smartly, pitched up in the acclaimed Menier CF revival of A Little Night Music, trained at RADA, went on to a Globe Tempest, a Grandage Henry V and the Branagh Winter’s Tale with Sir Ken himself and Dame Judi. On TV she has done a Rosamund Pilcher adaptation, the BBC War and Peace (a marvel), Tom Hardy’s bonkers, but addictive, Taboo, The Last Post and, latterly, Marian Halcombe in the recent brilliant BBC Woman in White. On every outing she has been outstanding in my book even when up against the best of British acting talent.
And then there’s Johnny Flynn. It looks to me, that alongside his modern folk musical career, Mr Flynn does pretty much whatever he likes when it comes to acting. Serendipity, and latterly extreme admiration, has meant I have seen most every performance Mr Flynn has committed to the stage. His Curtis in Edward Hall’s intelligent take on Taming of the Shrew for Propellor, Lee in the West End Jerusalem, the Globe Richard III and Twelfth Night (again alongside Mark Rylance), Bruce Norris’s The Low Road at the Royal Court and as, (the not dissimilar to Pascal), Mooney in McDonagn’s masterpiece Hangmen. Like Jessie, even when surrounded by outstanding actors, he shines. And he just oozes charm. Vagabond, itinerant, drifter, rake, roue, mountebank, inveigler, Take your pick. He was born to play them right down to the straggly beard. You can smell him in Beast from the back of the cinema.
Put these two together and it is mesmerising. No need for any over the top theatrical flammery and no need to suspend any disbelief when it comes to romance. It is a wonder the two of them take even a few hours to get it on such is the intensity, and depth, of the passion they portray. You root for them, a latter day Bonny and Clyde, as they stick two fingers up to family and conformity even as their malignancy is revealed. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, across a string of excellent supporting performance, Geraldine James as haughty Mum Hilary is superb, oppressively trying to control Moll, in part because she fears her. A word too for Trystan Gravelle as oleaginous Cliff, the police officer looking at the murders and failed wooer of Moll.
I know this is going to sound daft but the best comparison I can make is to Hitchcock. The call back to timeless fables, the slight air of oneiric unreality, (Moll even has a couple of living nightmares), the psychological insight, the mauling of hypocrisy, the intensity of performance and, obviously, the mastery of suspense. No funny business from the camera, though there are some banally beautifully composed interiors and exteriors from cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, in full natural light belying the darkness at the heart of the plot, but certainly the same way with plot and story.