Michael Pearce’s Beast has a pleasing earthiness, particularly as it lingers on the dirt underneath the fingernails of Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsome young poacher with a mysterious past and fashionably scattershot beard, and on the exquisitely expressive visage of Moll (Jessie Buckley), who often appears to be on the verge of imploding with unexpressed rage. As lovers, Pascal and Moll represent a union that’s familiar to films and literature: a forging of the wrong and right sides of the tracks. Pascal is an outcast of the tight-knit island of the film’s setting, while Moll is a member of a connected family controlled by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James). Pascal gives Moll acceptance laced with danger, while Moll challenges Pascal with a fiery agency that appears to be unusual to this community.
Because Pearce defines the relationship of this prototypically sexy odd couple in unsurprising fashions, one may wish that Hilary and the rest of her sycophantic brood weren’t so predictably bloodless and hypocritical. Moll is treated like a child and expected to care for her father and niece, though her siblings are allowed to live their own lives. There’s the inevitable scene where Pascal has dinner with Moll’s family and indicts them with his bluntness and lack of polish, which are equated with his ability to keep it real. A filmmaker with a greater sense of humor might have acknowledged that Pascal is insufferable—for his misplaced confidence in his unusualness. Pascal and Moll’s lovemaking is also rendered in commonplace visual shorthand, with the usual camera pirouettes and unrevealing close-ups of panting faces.
Beast more vividly proffers the specifics of foreplay. The title brings to mind Beauty and the Beast of course, and the film informs found settings with a casually fantastic atmosphere, occasionally suggesting Neil Jordan’s modern fairy tales. When Pascal first meets Moll, saving her from a potential rape, he seems to materialize from out of nowhere. The brutal killing of a rabbit is existentially freighted, and sensual, menacing landscapes are infused with the chemistry that Flynn and Buckley share, as they communicate the kind of superheated carnality that feels life-altering. Moll says that she likes Pascal’s smell, alluding to his animalistic allure, and Buckley allows the audience to understand just what a relief it is for Moll to be the star of her own narrative for once, rather than serving as a supporting player in her family’s saga.
The narrative also has a gambit that steers Beast into the terrain of a horror film, offsetting the sentimentality of the audience-flattering romance. A killer is murdering teenage girls in this community and Pascal is a chief suspect. Pascal’s potential link to violence further cements his relationship with Moll, who once brutally assaulted a classmate—an event that Hilary never fails to utilize as a form of manipulation. This romance hinges, then, on a possibility that’s particularly entertained by people in the grips of self-loathing: that a relationship will coax out not one’s best qualities but their worst. Moll fears that she’s a killer waiting to be unleashed by the right circumstances.
Until a cathartically violent ending, Pearce only sporadically brings Moll’s anxieties to a proper boil, as this is a film about sexual fear that’s skittish about mining the drama enacted by the central couple between the figurative sheets. Drab and repetitive scenes weigh the film down, though certain moments underscore the latent wellspring of violence that governs this community. Late in the narrative, Olwen Fouéré steals the film as Theresa Kelly, an investigator who questions Moll about Pascal. Knowing that Moll is lying about a pivotal detail, Theresa hammers away at her witness, her taut physicality suggesting a barely restrained rage that parallels Moll’s own.
Moll and Theresa are implicitly understood to be sisters who find themselves in opposition, as they’re each grappling with a repressive society in their own fashion: Moll by breaking the law, standing up for her man, and Theresa by upholding it. Beast comes to life in such moments, suggesting the blurred distinctions between freedom and imprisonment. Moll’s rebelliousness may steer her into murky psychological terrain, unleashing her own beastly tendencies. Pearce’s film perversely suggests that Hilary’s forbidding governance may be preferable to a life unhinged.