Thursday 3 May 2018

The company of wolves: "Beast"

The standout short in the touring program BAFTA Shorts 2014 was Keeping Up with the Joneses, a deftly spun tale of the unexpected that took a vaguely Tarantinoid set-up - two hitmen showing up on the front doorstep of a woman who wasn't one for lying down easily - and gradually, via its maker's attentive eye and careful deployment of actors, transformed it into something vastly more three-dimensional and lived-in. The director was one Michael Pearce, and in his debut feature Beast, he attempts - and pulls off - a not incomparable trick. The genre core here is a murder-mystery set in a coastal location (Jersey), such as might be familiar from Broadchurch, if not Bergerac before that. Yet Pearce films around it as if it were the basis of a fairy tale, not procedural drama, imbuing each development with a defamiliarising erotic strangeness. Take it as a sign of the confidence pulsing through the British film industry that a project this leftfield could get funded, let alone booked into the multiplex chains - and playing, as it was when I caught up with it, to rapt audiences. If, in its early stages, Beast can feel a perilously odd mix, there's something encouraging in the way it pursues its own logic, and grows surer of itself with every passing frame.

It is, also, a renewed sign of British indie cinema's new regionalism - that desire to eschew London for fresher air and faces - tied once more to a sympathy for characters being left behind at the margins. Our heroine is Moll (Jessie Buckley), an inquisitive tour guide who has the misfortune of living with a deeply conservative mother (Geraldine James, cornering the market in these roles after last year's Daphne) and within an ever more upwardly mobile clan who tamp down her modest achievements at every turn; the film's barely ten minutes old when she's overshadowed at her own birthday party by her sister-in-law's announcement that she's having twins. Enter Pascal (Johnny Flynn), local hunter-gatherer, and a man very briskly and economically established as having dirt under his fingernails and mud on his boots. Fascination ensues: here is exactly that wildness long purged from Moll's supposedly civilised household. Pascal attracts suspicion elsewhere, on account of his foreign name and the fact he looks and talks kinda funny, but he sets Moll to dreaming of open doors, and is soon offering to lead our girl by the hand into the woods - always a risky business when there is, as we're informed early on, a killer on the loose.

Identifying who that killer is will have to wait: Pearce's framing suggests that, like Pascal, he's possessed of a far more pressing urge to disrupt the haut-bourgeois complacency represented by mummy dearest. Beast has been touring the festival circuit for some months, seeking a place of its own, but that it should land in cinemas at this moment makes it a potent alternative to the garden fete cinema of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Pearce constructs his images not from cucumber sandwiches, but the earth itself: he uses it not just to bury his tale's bodies, but also to counter the sterility of the environment his heroine has been kept in. It yields one tremendous tableau - Moll reclining in bliss on a couch after being taken in a field by Pascal, legs spread, face begrimed, filthy fingers sullying mother's cushions - and plentiful transgressions besides: Moll stopping her tour bus to throw up at the roadside after recalling the grisly crime scene photos she's been shown, or spotting a stray hair sprouting from her neck, a sign of unruly life yanked out whenever the urge to conform is strong, left to grow when she's feeling more relaxed in her body.

Yet Pearce has ways of drawing us deep into this world. Bold sound design helps - we are surely not so far here from a British equivalent to Twin Peaks, the highest bar for dreamy coming-of-age tales - as do some of the most arresting casting choices of any recent Britfilm: even passing, one-scene day players - The Survivalist's Olwen Fouéré, as the faintly otherworldly detective drafted across the mainland to investigate the killings - linger long in the memory. With his patchy, lupine stubble and raspy, foghorn voice, Flynn is as puzzling a suitor for us as he might be for Moll, a Prince Charming we have (and owe it to ourselves) to figure out. Buckley, too, is a discovery, although at first I wondered whether she was being misapplied: she initially seems just a touch too RADA, too Rebecca Hall poised, to be as suggestible as the character has to be, and the suspicion lurks that Pearce might have been better served by someone more readily feral - one of Andrea Arnold's recent leads, perhaps. (Even Moll's red-riding dye job seems a shade too professionally and assiduously applied.)

Then, of course, I realised: Moll is every bit as much the princess as Emma Watson's Belle, tempted out of her safe space and into a whole new (in this case, social realist) context where your class can count against you, and innocence can be deadly. By this point, the performance had started to click and correct itself: you watch Buckley beginning to slough off some of those primmer, squarer edges, much as Moll decisively yanked off that hair, until the point, in the film's gripping final moments, where the character stands fully revealed before us. Her process of transformation remains tricky, and by no means for the faint of heart, but Pearce emerges from these two hours as an unusual and intriguing talent, apparently uninterested in Downtonisms, unlikely ever to cast Simperin' Lily James to ramp up his production budgets. Who needs her? In Buckley's Moll - messy, mucky and mixed-up, although not so much she cannot finally make out the wood from the trees - Beast may also just have given us the most compelling female character the British cinema has thrown up in decades.

Beast is now playing in selected cinemas.   

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