Once upon a time, on an island far, far away, a woman kept imprisoned by a combination of sibling rivalry, her wicked mother and a dark secret, met a brooding man. And he loved her fiercely, from the very moment they met. Moll (played by Jessie Buckley) is hemmed in on all sides by the dreary suburban monotony of a windswept Jersey, and Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn) offers her an escape. Not only does this matted-haired, sun-scorched loner take her away from the confines of her neat, nothing-y home, but on her way to get her he’s happy to intrude on its sanitised dullness, trudging his muddy boots on the cream carpet, smoking a sweat-soaked roll-up indoors. He’s every bit as daring as she wishes she could be, and he loves her in spite of – perhaps because of – her dark secret.
The central tenet of Beast – a fairytale updated for 2018 which could, apart from the inclusion of skinny jeans, fibreglass police cars and thumping club music, be set in 1968 – is folkloric and ancient. Moll is suppressing a beast within her and only Pascal’s calloused fingers can prise her free. He is feral, scarred, smelly and beautiful, his fingernails rimmed with soil. The big problem is, that same fecund muck festers in the wounds of three young girls who’ve been kidnapped, raped and killed. Could Pascal be hunting these wide-eyed innocents with the same heartless vigour with which he poaches rabbits?
The deaths are tearing this small community apart. Twee village fetes turn into interrogation rooms, morning strolls shift into team efforts to find the bodies among the potato crops. But Moll is emboldened by the relative chaos. She comes to depend on the passion between her and Pascal, played out on beaches and cliffs, in the woods and the scrubland. The wide shots of these landscapes, set to creaky violins, are as stunning and terrifying as the relationship growing unruly before our eyes. But when the police name Pascal as a suspect in these serial murders, Moll falls apart. Not only is she confined to police stations or the tiny, functional house she moved into with Pascal, but her nightmares rage. Is Pascal exactly who he says he is? Is she the person she’s been pretending to be, the creature she gets to be with Pascal, or someone in the middle?
Just like the Jennifer Lawrence film mother!, this allegorical tale can seem at once too slow-paced and unrelentingly violent. Don’t watch if you’re fond of rabbits, either. That said, Buckley’s sincere face and considered reactions are enough to make sure the sparse script doesn’t become hysterical, and her mother Hilary (Geraldine James) is perfect frosted coolness. As for Flynn, there are points where it seems like he’s overacting, becoming more upset than the script requires. But if you consider that this is basically what guys in fairytales have been doing for decades, it begins to make sense.
Love stories, now, are required to go somewhere new, to acknowledge the pain caused by hundreds of years of stories telling women their liberation is thanks to violent male suitors, and that love at first sight is an actual thing. And Beast rises to the challenge in a very smart and subtle way, when it becomes apparent that Pascal’s armoury isn’t just a rifle and a snarl, but the love bombs he’s been raining down on Moll. All he does, he insists, is love her. Do they end up happily ever after? The best answer I can give is… It’s 2018, what do you think?
Beast is released in the UK on 27th April. Watch the trailer here...