UK / 107 minutes / color / Stray Bear, Agile, Film 4, BFI, Altitude Dir & Scr: Michael Pearce Pr: Ivana MacKinnon, Lauren Dark, Kristian Brodie Cine: Benjamin Kračun Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Shannon Tarbet, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Hattie Gotobed, Olwen Fouéré, Emily Taaffe, Tim Woodward, Barry Aird, Oliver Maltman, Tyrone Lopez.
In order to discuss this movie sensibly I’m going to have to commit a few spoilers. I’m not going to give away the solution to the crime—or the series of crimes—because the movie itself doesn’t do that, instead leaving various possibilities open for us to debate heatedly in the pub on the way home from the cinema. But in order to explain that enigma I’m going to have to give away quite a lot of the information leading up to its presentation, including the movie’s finale. So, if you’re one of those people who can’t watch a production of Othello if you already know the ending, beware.
On the island of Jersey (for readers outside Europe, the island’s to the south of England’s south coast and roughly equidistant from France), Moll Humford (Buckley) lives with her parents, looking after her dementia-afflicted dad Fletcher (Woodward) some of the time and working as a bus-tour guide. At 27 she’s a bit old to still be living at home, but fourteen years ago she stuck a pair of scissors into a bullying schoolmate, Tamara (Taaffe), and since then she’s been treated as someone potentially dangerous.
The family as a whole is under the thumb of Moll’s über-controlling mother Hilary (James). Moll’s elder brother Harrison (Maltman) and her sister Polly (Tarbet), who’s clearly lost in admiration of her own cuteness, plus Harrison’s teenage daughter Jade (Gotobed), make up the rest of the pack. Although her siblings have clearly realized that discretion’s the better part of valor so far as their mother’s concerned, Moll keeps breaking the rules and being forced to make humiliating public apologies.
Moll also has difficulty dealing with the suffocating snobbery of the others (Jade and Fletcher excepted).
When Polly hijacks Moll’s birthday party—supposedly her big occasion—with the announcement that she’s expecting twins, Moll storms out to a local nightclub and spends the rest of the night dancing and drinking with Leigh (Rothwell). As they make their way home in the early morning he become sexually aggressive toward her. Luckily local poacher and jack-of-all-trades Pascal Renouf (Flynn) steps in to save her, and soon a romance blossoms—to the horror of Hilary, Polly and Harrison.
A serial killer has been strangling teenaged girls on the island, and Pascal, who has a suggestive police record, is one of the cops’ suspects. The latest victim was abducted while Moll was dancing with Leigh at that niterie, and it seems to her merely a technical lie to say the person she was dancing with was Pascal, thereby giving him an alibi. After all, Pascal couldn’t really be guilty, could he?
The cops think otherwise—especially Clifford (Gravelle), who’s long carried a torch for Moll and would like nothing better than to see her latest flame locked away for a few decades.
That’s the general setup, as expounded during the first one-third or so of the movie. From there on the components of the plot are familiar enough, although the way they’re handled keeps us constantly in doubt about the truth of what’s going on: thuggish local vigilantes like Stuart (Aird) target their first-choice scapegoat, immigrant Portuguese farm laborer Nuño Alvarez (Lopez); Pascal is arrested on suspicion of being the killer, so Stuart and his knuckleheaded cronies shift their attentions to Moll; the cops find strong evidence that points to Nuño Alvarez after all, so Pascal is released . . . but Moll suspects, and so do we, that, whatever the DNA evidence might indicate, Nuño’s innocent and Pascal’s the killer.
As I say, these are familiar tropes. But we don’t recognize them as such at the time, partly because of the flair of the screenplay, partly because of Benjamin Kračun’s evocative cinematography of Jersey’s astonishing coastal and other landscapes (I began to wonder why Peter Jackson chose to go all the way to New Zealand to film his Tolkien movies when there was Jersey right there on his doorstep), but mainly because of the cast.
Jessie Buckley outstands, with a performance that rightly brought her a whole bunch of awards and nominations, including a Best Actress nomination and the Most Promising Newcomer gong at the British Independent Film Awards, a Best Actress nomination at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, and a win at the London Critics Circle Film Awards as British/Irish Actress of the Year. Her Moll is clearly a troubled individual, possibly autistic, clearly “difficult,” a problem for those around her due to her unpredictability and the trouble she has fitting in with other people’s expectations. Perhaps because of all that, she’s an immensely sympathetic figure to us, the audience. Buckley fills her depiction of Moll with nuance, her eyes in particular conveying her mercurial emotions except when she’s deliberately using them as veils to hide feelings that are maybe darker than we’d like to conjecture. It helps that Kračun’s camera is clearly—and understandably—in love with the expressiveness of her face.
Johnny Flynn, as Pascal, delivers a strong turn too, while necessarily playing second fiddle. I did, though, have slight doubts from time to time about his accent; to be fair, I barely know the Jersey accent so the fault may be mine rather than his.
Geraldine James as the iron-willed mother, relentlessly sowing dysfunction throughout her family in the unremitting belief she’s doing the best thing for all, plays her part with such conviction that I actually found myself becoming quite uncomfortable watching her. In the same way as with Barry Aird’s dimwitted thug Stuart, you know that here is someone with whom there’s not the slightest point in trying to conduct a rational argument: it’s her way or the highway.
In the midst of everything else there’s a nice cameo from Olwen Fouéré as D.I. Theresa Kelly, brought in from the mainland to spearhead the inquiry into the killings. Kelly’s in her way a diluted version of Geraldine James’s character but with far better social skills.
Okay, back to the plot:
So Pascal’s been released from police custody and he and Moll are trying to rebuild. After a huge argument between them reveals his violent streak, Moll’s nascent suspicion that, whatever the cops have now concluded, he might after all be the serial killer comes bubbling to the surface. But she still loves him.
As the pair sit in an outdoor café preparing to have lunch, she explains to him that she’ll love him forever even if he killed those girls, but only if he’s honest with her about it and admits his guilt. After all, she’s now prepared to admit to him that it wasn’t in self-defense, an “accident,” that she stuck those scissors into Tamara fourteen years ago: it was a deliberate assault, and Moll wanted to kill her. “We’re both the same” is the case Moll advances to him.
So Pascal tells her that, yes, he was the murderer, but those girls meant nothing to him and it’s all behind him now.
The extraordinary impact of Beast’s conclusion when it comes just a few minutes later is that we don’t know if Pascal’s telling the truth here or not.
Did he really kill those girls? Or is he just trying to help Moll assuage her own long-term feelings of guilt and defectiveness by pretending he’s just as bad as she is—worse, in fact? Does he believe that a false confession on his part will be the cement that will bind together their relationship for the rest of their lives?
The shattering events of Beast’s finale raise further possibilities. Here and there throughout the movie there are moments when Moll discovers a french window open at night in the family home; is it possible she’s been making nocturnal excursions without remembering she’s done so? In other words, could she be the serial killer? This might tie in with a seeming discontinuity early in the movie, whereby it’s high afternoon when Moll flees her birthday party yet well into the evening when she flits from the house heading for the nightclub. Much is made of the fact that the killer’s latest victim was abducted the very evening of Moll’s birthday party. Could the movie be acknowledging some missing hours—missing hours when Moll was committing murder?
It’s a question I can’t answer. What I can say with certainty is that I found Beast immensely absorbing and, in its finale, emotionally and intellectually challenging. It’s a movie that’ll assuredly remain in my mind a very long time, and one I imagine I’ll be rewatching more than once. Clearly a lot of the critics reacted similarly; those accolades I mentioned Buckley having won are just the tip of the iceberg for the movie as a whole, and particularly for its director and writer, Matthew Pearce.
There was, by the way, a real Beast of Jersey. In the 1960s and early 1970s Edward Paisnel carried out a string of rapes and sexual assaults on the island, being eventually caught only through lucky chance. His crimes were actually very different in nature from those committed by the killer in Beast, so perhaps we shouldn’t be tempted to read too much into the parallels.