A trend seems to have developed in recent years for films to be set in the Channel Islands.
Last year we had Christopher Menaul’s Another Mother’s Son, a low-key drama documenting Louisa Gould’s honourable (but fatal) decision to house a Russian slave worker during the Occupation, while Mike Newell’s tongue-twister-titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is currently showing in cinemas across the UK.
And now here’s writer-director Michael Pearce’s Beast, a dark psychological thriller that distinguishes itself from the above-mentioned films in two distinct ways.
Firstly, it was actually shot in the Channel Islands, or at least most of the exteriors were, meaning that us nitpicking Jersey residents can enjoy the film without constantly thinking, ‘Hmm, Jersey/Guernsey sure looks like Somerset/Devon’.
And secondly, unlike the rather mixed critical reception afforded Another Mother’s Son (mostly undeserved) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (only slightly undeserved), Beast has been showered with plaudits, with critics calling it ‘a scenic spine chiller’, ‘a warped adult fairy tale’ and ‘a smartly layered thriller that draws haunting drama from its creepy location’ (hey, watch who you’re calling creepy, Peter ‘Guardian’ Bradshaw!).
Having now watched the film myself, I can happily report that Beast is indeed a very good film, being a supremely atmospheric and well-made chiller with an award-worthy central performance from Irish actress Jessie Buckley.
Set in Jersey, Beast centres on Moll (Buckley), a troubled young historical guide living under the overbearing watch of her calmly bullying mother, Hilary (Geraldine James). Feeling oppressed by the insular island community and belittled by the favouritism granted to her odious sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), Moll likens her existence to that of a killer whale kept in captivity, trapped in a confined space and slowly losing its mind.
That all changes, however, when – having fled from her own birthday party (a nightmarishly believable awkward family gathering) – Moll meets a mysterious gun-wielding loner, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), and quickly falls for the gruff no-nonsense outsider.
But when Pascal falls under suspicion for a series of brutal child murders, Moll finds herself growing increasingly conflicted, as she flits wildly from defending her new lover to suspecting he may indeed be a closet psychopath.
Jersey-born Pearce introduced the film by telling the packed auditorium that directing Beast had enabled him to explore his own feelings about the Island on which he was raised, and said that, as its title suggests, Beast was partly inspired by Edward Paisnel, aka the Beast of Jersey.
The film certainly bears parallels with that unpleasant chapter in the Island’s history, most blatantly with the naming of Flynn’s character (Pascal sounds very similar to Paisnel), although it must be said that Flynn’s rugged good looks are a million miles away from Paisnel’s ugly old mug.
It could also be said that Moll’s plight resembles that of poor old Alphonse Le Gastelois, as she is scorned and vilified for crimes that she played no part in.
During interviews, Pearce has stated that he wanted to avoid using Jersey as ‘a character in the film’, and while it is true that Beast is very much a performance-driven piece that focuses primarily on its actors, there is no denying that the by-turns picturesque and fog-swept Jersey locations play a major role in proceedings. The Island comes across as both extraordinarily beautiful and oppressively claustrophobic, both open to the freeing wonders of nature and stiflingly inward-looking.
Personally, I found the film similar to the work of Ben Wheatley, in particular the Brit director’s outstanding 2011 crime-horror Kill List. Like that film, Beast has a gritty, naturalistic tone and, again like Kill List, it frequently incorporates slow-motion in disconcerting ways, with many sequences slowing to a crawl while the soundtrack drones ominously.
As Pearce warned us beforehand, Beast is often unremittingly grim, with scenes of dead bodies uncovered in muddy potato fields that are disturbingly realistic, but such is the skill with which Pearce brings his self-penned screenplay to life that the result is never less than captivating.
‘If you enjoy the film, please tell all of your family and friends to come and watch it,’ he said. ‘And if you don’t like it, just shut the **** up.’
He was joking, of course, but he needn’t have worried. It’s doubtful anyone who attended last Wednesday’s première hasn’t been enthusiastically recommending it to friends and family ever since.
Beast is showing now at Cineworld.