A favoured mode of romantic suspense drama – all the way back to In a Lonely Place – is the story of a woman in love with a man who might or might not be a serial killer, with the perverse twist that the things about him which make him suspect might also be the things that most attract her to him. Here, the perceptive copper on the case puts it in a nutshell when he addresses the heroine with ‘I don’t know if you’re protecting him because you think he’s innocent or because you think he’s guilty.’
Set on Jersey, and loosely inspired by the crimes of a child attacker who was known as the Beast of Jersey, writer-director Michael Pearce’s debut feature revolves around Moll (Jessie Buckley), a troubled young woman who works as a tourist guide and is kept slightly in cotton wool by her passive-aggressive domineering Mum (Geraldine James, in scenes which contrast interestingly in her work as the mother of another difficult redhead in Daphne) and an extended family who keep misreading her cues. Storming out of her own birthday party because her brother’s girlfriend has upstaged her by announcing that she’s pregnant with twins, she goes to an all-night dance venue and in the misty morning is fending off an insistent potential date rapist when she’s rescued by the interestingly scarred (and apparently musky) poacher Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), who radiates DH Lawrence-ish sensuality but is also on the fairly short list of suspects in the case of a string of murders in which young girls are snatched from their families and raped then killed by having earth shoved down their gullets.
Hitchcock’s dictum of making sure that a thriller with a specific location involves every single element associated with that place is borne out when a corpse turns up in a shallow grave in a field of jersey potatoes – while there’s an interesting local class angle in Pascal’s status as an islander with a family line stretching back to French aristocracy who is now a handyman and looked down on by the British-seeming polite middle class folk who organise fetes and work for the police. Moll is drawn to the earthy Pascal but creeped out by the cop who likes her (Trystan Gravelle), and clings closer to the bloke when the police get more serious about pinning the crimes on him – with Olwen Fouere impressive in a one-scene bit as an especially tenacious grey-hawk copper – to the extent of giving him an alibi, though she has her own doubts. She’s also busy digging up her own violent past, which involves being thrown out of school for stabbing a supposed bully.
The story simmers rather than boils, with some of the kinkier bits – a lot of rolling in earth and broken glass – coming off as silly, though Buckley and Flynn have a lot of presence and their characters are interestingly cracked. The serial killer plot witters on a bit too much in the background, with vigilantes (and nightmare fake-out attacks) and suspects sketched in as we focus on the main relationship. It’s resolved in an intense final confrontation that still leaves a few too many plates spinning.