What it’s about: Moll is a young woman with a trouble past who doesn’t quite fit in with her family or small British community. After a long night out dancing, she is cornered by a threat of violence and saved by a handsome and mysterious stranger, Pascal. Though they don’t know much about each other, Moll quickly develops a kinship with Pascal, attracted by their shared social statuses as black sheep in their conservative community. But when Pascal is suspected of horrific crimes against young women, Moll has to choose to protect him or protect herself and destroy her only meaningful relationship. With her own demons, however, Moll’s interest in Pascal may only be growing with the revelations that he could be a monster.
Beast is among the new genre of films including the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights remakes and Lady Macbeth, classically styled British romances that embrace darker, violent, macabre impulses. A privileged girl is seduced by a lower class man and their love is not only not accepted by their society but has a level of danger. And has been the case with these new adaptations or homages, much of the dark nature of the narrative and themes come from the twisted perspective of its lead female character.
The first impression of Moll is a quiet but typical woman from a conservative, middle class upbringing. The film opens with her birthday party that is clearly not her scene. Her reaction to an announcement and her mother’s suggest to bring out some champagne is wild and a little scary. Without fully exploring why she explodes this way or what specifically set her off, but it is a curious glimpse into what is to come in Beast.
Beast builds the community and location expertly. Without doing a lot explicitly, there is a strong sense of just how small and interconnected this community is. Everyone knows everyone, the rumors of people’s past is known by everyone. This makes Pascal all the more interesting, as he comes off as a complete outsider even though he claims to have more a familial connection to this place than Moll’s family. Being a social outcast adds to his mysterious danger, or perhaps he is truly an outsider lying about his identity.
Moll and Pascal’s meeting is like the opposite of a “meet cute.” It is a scene that could be played off in a romantic way if it were heightened to melodrama but Beast doesn’t take it there.
Jessie Buckley is fantastic as a specific kind of crazy protagonist that manages to feel real honest and unique. Even as she has literal eye twitching moments of insanity, her psychosis isn’t overplayed externally [for the most part].
A lot of the way the film is seen is how she sees the world. Beast wonderfully changes in tone and character based on what she knows of those around her. Without getting into specifics and though I’m not sure the intense finale of the film works completely [there is a natural ending point and then about 20 minutes left], what happens in the final act is completely tied to Moll’s point-of-view. By the end of the film, I question how Pascal was presented at any point -- is he really the dangerous bad boy we see in the film or is that just how Moll wants to see him?
Pascal is a skewed version of the romantic novel hunk ideal: he’s of nature, connected to the dirt and the sea. He works with his hands and hunts for his food. He’s rugged and musky [the way he smells is returned to multiple times].
Some of the crime elements, especially in the second half of the film, come off a little like a BBC drama series. It is still solid and there are flourishes that are consistent with the film as a whole, but it is missing something from the strange romance.
Geraldine James is the perfect icy mother. In a way, her point-of-view is reasonable. She wants to protect her daughter and her family’s lifestyle from a outside threat. But with the film’s perspective and her exact brand of coldness, it comes off as monstrous.
Johnny Flynn has a presence that works well as the mysterious bad boy -- he’s like 90% of a typical Hollywood leading man, a few features that throw him off just slightly. I’m not sure if he is a great actor, if he can pull off what the film needs as the character changes over the course of the film. If you know Flynn as the sweet and hopeless center of the Netflix rom-com series Lovesick [originally titled Scrotal Recall], you can see more of his potential in Beast.
For Michael Pearce’s screenplay and directorial debut, this is an incredibly assured dramatic thriller. The characters are fully realized and the entire tone of the world comes directly from those characters. And it takes risks, it swings big. So even when I can’t totally roll with some places it goes, I can’t fault the vision or direction. Beast will likely be one of the most distinctive films of the year and Buckley deserves a lot of attention.