Apart from John Nettles’ wig, the dodgiest aspect of Bergerac, the Horlicks-bating 1980s BBC Sunday night detective show, was its depiction of the Channel Island of Jersey as a hotbed of criminality. But no more. These days, mention of Jersey in the news usually means a new twist in dark revelations of child abuse in its care home system going back decades. But this inconvenient truth topped one that Jersey had just about managed to put to bed. The ‘Beast of Jersey’ was a local nutjob in a rubber mask who sliced, tortured and sodomised his way around the island between 1957 and 1971, when he was finally captured by a hopelessly incompetent old bill in clear need of a Jim Bergerac (or at least a Bruce Mindhorn) to speed things up a notch or twelve.
The Beast of Jersey is the inspiration for this atmospheric Film4 chiller from writer/director Michael Pearce, built upon two incendiary performances from leads Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Buckley plays Moll, 27 years old and still living at home with her domineering posh mother (Geraldine James), dementia-lost dad and massive collection of boxed Funko Pop! characters (probably). Into this entropic nightmare of fidgety summer parties, judgemental siblings and choir practice comes Pascal, a local jack-the-lad with a piercing stare who helps - or rather shoots with his air rifle - Moll out of spot of bother with a randy local down at the beach. Soon, saviour Pascal is dropping by Moll’s family home and, to her delight, freaking her family out with his handsome smirk, dirty boots and pungent roll-up fags. Smitten, Moll finally flies the coup and moves in with her bit of rough, only for Pascal’s dark past to be revealed to her by the plod, who have him in the frame for a series of beastly murders. She needn’t worry though, with their hit-rate she’s got at least a decade before they catch the culprit.
This is a remarkably assured first feature from Jersey native Pearce, who weaves a bizarre and compelling love story into a provocative and unsettling slasher mystery. The isolated, seaward setting and themes of repressed sexuality, deviancy and murder are a very English combination that might have been syphoned directly from the early novels and short stories of Ian McEwan (back when he knew how to keep things simple). There’s a creeping, febrile tension to every scene, no matter how silent or innocuous; every single beat of this film (including some generous laughs at the social awkwardness) hits the mark.
Johnny Flynn as Pascal wouldn’t look out of place as one of the pub regulars in Straw Dogs. He’s the dashing, rabbit-poaching yokel whose carefree attitude may or may not mask a serial killer. Pearce creates a hypnotic spark between his star-crossed lovers and gets a career-best performance from Jessie Buckley (light years away from her days as a warbling wannabe on the BBC’s I’d Do Anything). From the first moment we see her, trapped in her over-protective mother’s flinty grip, we sense the rebellion to come. Buckley’s un-showy, deeply affecting portrayal of Moll’s subsequent flight to danger is simply great acting. She’ll deserve awards come year-end.
A brooding, beautifully executed chiller that’ll be about as welcome at the Jersey Tourist Board as a nest of rats.
BEAST / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL PEARCE / STARRING: JESSIE BUCKLEY, JOHNNY FLYNN, GERALDINE JAMES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOWExpected 7 out of 10