Beauty film asks: Who’s the Beast?
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.