by Hope Madden
An outsider love story, a chilly whodunit, a psychological thriller—Beast is all and none of these.
This remarkably assured first feature from writer/director Mark Pearce keeps its focus on Moll (Jessie Buckley), the highly-scrutinized woman living with her parents in a small island community.
We open serenely enough on an angelic church choir rehearsing, a peace that’s harshly broken by the choir leader’s remark: I need more from you, Moll.
Geraldine James is haughty Hilary Huntington, the choirmaster; Moll is her grown daughter.
Soon a rugged stranger draws Moll out of her unhappy life, makes her feel awake and seen. She is destined to love this boy regardless of the string of missing girls in her village, regardless of his shady past, and in spite of the warnings of the smothering community.
Pearce’s skills keep you entranced, no matter the tropes he so easily picks up, throws off or reinvents. Sunlight, shadow, earth, sea—all these serve the visual storyteller’s purpose, while angles and frames keep you off kilter as you puzzle through the tale at hand.
You’re as invested, cautious and curious as Moll, but it’s actually Buckley’s performance—her depiction of Moll’s internal conflict—that is the most compelling and mysterious. As Moll changes demeanor, exploring her own identity becomes more important than determining her lover’s.
Johnny Flynn impresses as well as the local no-account presumed guilty, sharing a misfit chemistry with Moll that is both primal and tender. Tenderness is not what she’s used to from her severe mother, an epic James.
Together with the washed out colors of the characters’ bleak world, the film offers a harsh backdrop for Moll’s dizzying grasp on her own reality. The conflict, duality and self-discovery in Beast cannot help but draw you in, asking you about your own inner beast.
Without hitting a single false note, no matter the choir leader’s opinion, Buckley ushers us through a moral quagmire with a fire and authenticity that is gorgeous to behold.