The Channel Islands are best known for two things: being the southernmost ‘Crown Dependencies’ of the United Kingdom (and as a result, the place where generations of lower-middle and middle class Brits went for a warm weather holiday – my parents honeymooned there in 1959), and being the only part of the British isles occupied by German forces during World War II (their proximity to the French mainland enabling the islands’ rapid seizure in 1940).
Despite their reputation for good weather and physical beauty, however, the islands have never factored into cinema history: according to the Internet Movie Database, precisely one feature-length motion picture, Beast (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 18) has been shot there. It’s hard to believe, but from the time Eadward Muybridge invented the motion picture in 1878 until last year, the Channel Islands hadn’t seen a camera much larger than a Super 8.
Set on Jersey (Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark still await their time in the motion picture spotlight), Beast eschews the islands’ sunny reputation in favor of something decidedly darker. In common with other films set in Britain’s remoter regions, such as 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1973’s The Wicker Man, Beast digs beneath the bucolic surface to reveal rich seams of ugliness and despair.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is in her late 20s and still living at home with her difficult mother (Geraldine James) and dementia-stricken father (Tim Woodward). Withdrawn and shy, Moll has one very sizable skeleton in her closet: as a teenager, she once plunged a pair of scissors deep into a fellow schoolgirl’s chest.
Though the attack wasn’t fatal, its memory weighs heavily upon Moll, keeping her in mum’s thrall and in the shadow of favored sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet). Despite the advances of friendly policeman Cliff (Trystan Gravelle), Moll is gun-shy about relationships and haunted by nightmares of her crime.
Things change after a chance encounter with local bad boy Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who rescues Moll from an awkward situation and sweeps her off her feet and into a torrid relationship. But there’s a problem: Cliff suspects Pascal may be the serial killer responsible for the deaths of four islanders.
Written and directed by newcomer Michael Pearce, Beast is a character study disguised as a murder-mystery, offering sharply drawn examinations of the black sheep boy and girl looked upon with suspicion by their determinedly ‘normal’ neighbors. Jersey itself looks absolutely fabulous, with cinematographer Benjamin Kracan taking full advantage of the island’s rugged beauty and maritime ambience.
In addition to outstanding performances from Buckley and Flynn, Beast benefits from Jim Williams’ suitably unsettling score. Williams composed similarly dark material for 2012’s memorable black comedy Sightseers, and this time relies on a blend of unsettling, drawling violins and Eno-esques synth washes; the result is a master class in sparse, dissonant modern composition.
Regardless of what follows it into cinemas later this year, Beast will figure prominently on my 2018 favorites list. It’s a bold, brave, and provocative first film for Michael Pearce: I’m already looking forward to whatever he comes up with next.
Warning: the death of a rabbit is depicted in fairly gruesome detail, so proceed accordingly.