Beauty film asks: Who’s the Beast?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST MOVIES - CHRIS KNIGHT

In Dis­ney’s Beauty and the Beast, the iden­tity of the Beast is never in any doubt, un­less you fancy some re­ally gra­tu­itous re­vi­sion­ism. But in Beast, writer/di­rec­tor Michael Pearce’s pow­er­ful de­but fea­ture, that one-word ti­tle leaves room for de­bate. Just who is this Beast?

The chief sus­pect is Pas­cal Re­nouf (Johnny Flynn), a dark anti-hero of the Wuther­ing Heights va­ri­ety. The po­lice think he might be be­hind a re­cent spate of mur­ders, but the first time we meet him, he’s res­cu­ing a young woman named Moll (Jessie Buck­ley) from an im­pul­sive first date that’s about to be­come an as­sault.

The story is set on Jersey, a chan­nel is­land with a pop­u­la­tion of about 100,000; think Mil­ton, Ont., or Red Deer, Alta. Pas­cal’s name sug­gests his fam­ily has been there for cen­turies; Moll’s are re­cent ar­rivals from Bri­tain, though they bring with them a colo­nial sense of own­er­ship, most im­pe­ri­ously on dis­play by her mother (Geral­dine James).

Moll’s at­trac­tion to Pas­cal is dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. She may have started from a sense of obli­ga­tion. She may be keep­ing it up just to an­noy her fam­ily, or be­cause no one else is will­ing to give this rough guy a break. What­ever her rea­sons, she def­i­nitely ex­ists in­side her own bub­ble of trou­bled­ness; she drinks, harms her­self, some­times wan­ders, suf­fers night­mares — and there’s noth­ing nor­mal about the way she eats cake.

But Pearce clev­erly steers us into this dark drama Moll-first. She may be just as bleak and tor­mented as her beau, but be­cause she talks more and is sur­rounded by fam­ily, we feel we know her bet­ter. Pas­cal is a poacher with a po­lice record, which is dif­fi­cult to spin as any­thing other than a neg­a­tive.

Beast feels like it shares some DNA with Lady Macbeth, the 2016 Bri­tish ro­man­tic thriller that in­tro­duced Florence Pugh (since wasted in The Com­muter, but due up this year in Out­law King, about Robert the Bruce). Ire­land’s Buck­ley de­liv­ers a sim­i­larly dis­turb­ing yet mea­sured per­for­mance, with Flynn pro­vid­ing the per­fect coun­ter­point.

So who is the Beast? Per­haps it’s the pruri­ent viewer who de­cides to brave this twisted tale. But hon­estly, I wouldn’t let that kind of name-call­ing de­ter you. Beast is a thrill ride, a plunge into dark­ness that feels like it may never pull up.

Beast opens June 15 in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa; June 29 in Cal­gary, Ed­mon­ton and Vic­to­ria; and July 13 in Regina and Saska­toon.


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