There's always something particularly enjoyable about watching the rise of new British talent and the ways in which it comes together to produce something bold and exciting. Such is the case with Michael Pearce's debut feature film Beast, a director who had previously picked up a BAFTA nomination for his 2013 short Keeping Up With The Joneses.
Along with two star turns from Jessie Buckley (who you may recall from Tom Hardy's Taboo) and Johnny Flynn, we are given a small town thriller with a delightful little twist that turns the life of a sleepy Jersey community on its head. There is a dark fairy tale-like quality to Pearce's film that points towards the beast being present in more than just a single character, although only one is responsible for the spate of brutal killings of young women on the island.
When we first meet Moll (Buckley) she is slowly being suffocated by her humdrum suburban existence. At 27, she still lives at home under the watchful eye of her controlling mother Hillary (Geraldine James) and works as a guide on the "granny tours" around the island. We later learn the reason why Hillary tries to keep Moll on such a tight leash, harking back to a grim incident that occurred during her time at school.
It becomes apparent that after meeting Pascal (Johnny Flynn) Hillary's hold over her daughter’s emotions will only continue to weaken while the presence of this enigmatic stranger slowly seduces Moll's imagination. Flynn's oddly handsome appearance is filled with mysterious charisma, the depth of his eyes as blue as the sea encompassing the island itself.
Where Moll is quiet and unsure of herself, Pascal's confident assurance in his place as an outsider in the town makes Flynn's performance the stand out in the first half. However, this is a film seen through Moll's eyes and her gradual evolution is superbly controlled by Buckley to gradually position her as the heart and soul of the story.
The pair have an innate understanding of each other's personalities almost immediately, although for all the tenderness Pascal shows towards Moll there is a darker side lurking beneath the surface. He first appears amongst the tall beach grass holding a rifle which we see has been used to poach a rabbit now lifelessly left in the rear of his beaten up Land Rover. It isn't long before he is being accused of the murders and Moll has to decide how far she will go to protect him with tempers amongst the townsfolk becoming increasingly shorter.
Beast finds much of its strength in two performers willing to fully absorb themselves into their roles. Where Flynn turns Pascal into an unknown quantity that adds an exciting dimension of alluring danger, it is Buckley who is carrying an emotional weight that becomes heavier with almost every passing scene. She details the small but meaningful areas of their intense relationship that emboldens her to break free of the constraints placed upon her for so long by her family.
Similarly, Pearce focusses on the little moments that set the wheels in motion for Moll: the spark of life coming back into her eyes, the grubby appeal of Pascal’s appearance disrupting the placidity of her world and intercutting dream-like sequences that point to a growing inner turmoil. But it would be a mistake to encapsulate this as simply the story of a small town girl corrupted by a nefarious intruder in her life as there is much more happening beyond that.
The one misstep that does stand out is a lull in pacing towards the end of the final act although the ambiguity of the ending itself stays with you far longer than any nit-picks that take us there. It all adds up to an arresting debut from Pearce who gets impressively strong performances from two leads we are sure to see a lot more of in the years to come.