By Pat Mullen
Ask Michael Pearce to classify his film Beast and there’s no shortage of answers. The director describes Beast as a “horror film,” a “detective movie,” a “prison break movie,” an “emotional thriller,” and an “adult fairy tale” within a single conversation. Call it what you want — Beast is one hell of a movie.
“Sometimes my favourite films are the ones that deliver on the genre fronts, but also circumvent classical expectations of a genre,” observes Pearce.
Beast keeps audiences guessing with its dark romance set on Jersey, the idyllic island between England and France. The film stars Jessie Buckley as Moll, a young woman who escapes her conservative family when she meets Pascal (Jonny Flynn), a mysterious Prince Charming who rescues her on her 27th birthday.
There’s just one problem: Pascal may be a serial killer preying upon young women. The more Moll believes Pascal is the predator, however, the more she likes him.
Digging into Moll’s taste for danger helped Pearce take Beast beyond a mere procedural. “Originally, Moll was a naïve ingénue who could be manipulated by a psychopath,” he says. “The question about whether Pascal is or isn’t the serial killer should be subordinated below the question of what is happening to this young woman. That’s the intrigue.”
Moll challenges fairytale convention as a complex anti-hero, unlike Disney’s perky princesses. Pearce says researching fairytales helped shape Moll outside the lines set by literary predecessors.
“They’re quite maligned members of their family and have lots oppressive siblings,” Pearce observes of fairytale heroines. “They often have a hostile relationship with the matriarchal figure. I saw Moll as having a Cinderella-type existence where she’s starving for emotional oxygen.” Beast plays upon this dynamic, as Moll’s relationship with Pascal draws the disapproval of her cold mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), but also fuels her passion for the beast.
As Moll’s relationship with Pascal develops, Beast navigates two different worlds: Hilary’s prime home and Pascal’s dingy den. Scenes with Moll’s family favour tight interiors with muted colours, while scenes with Pascal offer bright splashes of reds and blues, and draw upon the wildness of the landscape. Pearce adds that the aesthetic for Moll’s family favours longer shots, slower pacing, and stillness.
“We wanted a growing sense of unease and constant anxiety in that environment,” he says. Handheld camerawork, quicker cuts, and impressionistic editing make her scenes with Pascal a romantic whirlwind. “We wanted it to have a very elemental feeling – that intense rush of falling in love for the first time.”
Buckley gets under the skin of her character as Moll finds herself caught between two worlds. “She was the kind of person Moll might have become if she grew up under different circumstances,” says Pearce. “Jessie’s wild and free. I liked the idea of putting her in Moll’s straightjacket. You could feel that there was someone much more alive trapped within this situation.”
Pearce relates to the suffocation Moll feels on her small island. Growing up on Jersey himself, the director says he felt starved for music, film, and culture in his teenage years, although he adds that any small island could evoke this feeling.
“There is a conservative mentality to the island and a culture of appearances,” admits Pearce. “I felt alienated from that atmosphere.” Pearce says he channeled his conflicting emotions about Jersey into a portrait that is more complex than the quaint version that usually appears on screen.
A dark chapter in Jersey’s history provides the spark for Beast. Pearce cites the tale of the “Beast of Jersey,” about a child molester who haunted the island for a decade, as inspiration, but avoided adapting the tale directly to respect survivors living on the island. Instead, Beast evokes the wild sensation he experienced growing up and discovering the neighbourhood terror. “It was that loss of innocence when you realize that monsters do exist,” he explains. “They’re not just in fairy tales.”
The story of real monsters has extra bite in the wake of predators exposed in Hollywood. Pearce notes that he began Beast seven years ago, and the film hit festivals before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, but the topicality of the film is serendipitous.
“While researching psychopaths, I saw how charming these monsters can be. It’s one of the defining features of a psychopath,” says Pearce. “Some of these celebrities are explicit monsters, but others are people we love. Sometimes you don’t know who the monster is.”