Review: “The Beast Must Die” Still As Exciting And Wicked In New Adaptation
“The Beast Must Die” is resilient and wicked work.
Published 83 years ago, the highly entertaining source novel was one of a series of mysterious thrillers written by poet Cecil Day-Lewis, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. It was first adapted for screen in Argentina in 1952, then in 1968 as an hour-long entry in a British television anthology series. A year later, the French iteration, released in the US titled “This Man Must Die”, was released and is still revered by moviegoers as one of the finest works by master of psychological suspense Claude Chabrol.
Now fans have a full-scale English production of ‘Beast’ in the form of a six-part UK miniseries that begins airing one episode per week on AMC + starting Monday, July 5th. ) It is updated with modern times and technologies, and informed by current thinking on trauma, race and gender.
Rest assured, however, this story is still very nasty. Day-Lewis (yes, actor Daniel’s father) invented such a sophisticated yet primitive story of heartache, deception, and revenge that evolving sensibilities can’t suppress his reptile allure. Not even serious changes to two of the main characters alter the fundamentals of the story, although one is more successful than the other.
Cush Jumbo, best known for her role as Lucca Quinn in “The Good Wife” / “Good Fight”, is calculating, heartbreaking and formidable as Frances Cairnes. She’s a widowed schoolteacher who was further devastated when her young son was killed by a hit and run driver on the Isle of Wight.
In previous versions, the character was Frank Cairns, a detective novelist. Their behavior is different, of course, but the agenda is the same. Frances pretends to be a different person in order to find her son’s killer, and once she believes she has located the culprit – George Rattery (“Chernobyl’s” Jared Harris), whose defaults are demean, intimidate and betray – Frances creeps into the wealthy islander’s house. This leads to many delightfully loaded interactions with all of the family members, but Harris and Jumbo’s suspicious circles are particularly expert showdowns. Tense suspense, lively feints, vulnerability and, at times, ironic laughter emerge from these superb actor tangos.
Nigel Strangeways should be watchable as well, but here you just want to get away from him. The character is actually the star of the Day-Lewis book series, a gentleman private investigator who, along with his capable wife Georgia, was something of a British Nick and Nora Charles. In the series, it’s a lone London Police Inspector who has just taken command of the Holiday Island’s nonchalant police. He has PTSD due to the tragic death of a partner, some pretty ridiculous ethical conflict, and in a generally gloomy and off-putting manner.
Strangeways is played by Billy Howle, who always seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Netflix’s recent “The Serpent” series. “Beast” limits him to just two or three panic attacks per episode, and he’s actually pretty good when he’s not over-acting. But this struggling cop is artificially laden with too many problems, like the flawed heroes of “Perry Mason” or “Mare of Easttown” who seem to be taking over high-profile cable shows.
Police officer melodrama aside, series writer Gaby Chiappe (“Their Best”) and director Dome Karukoski (also from the 2019 biopic “Tolkien”) do a decent job of building the story. Emotional credibility is generous while prejudices, although barely addressed, are all the more overwhelming the more their micro-insinuation is here.
The novel may have been formally innovative and written for fun, Chabrol’s film meaner and less forgiving, but this “Beast Must Die” balances harsh judgment with empathy, an approach appropriate for these divided times.
It’s not about which version is the best, as much as appreciating a story strong enough to adapt to changing environments – as a good chameleon should.
M“The beast must die”: Mystery. With Cush Jumbo, Billy Howle and Jared Harris. Directed by Dome Karukoski. (TV-MA. Six one-hour episodes.) A new episode airs every Monday on AMC + starting July 5, with each episode airing one week later at 10 p.m. Monday on the AMC cable channel.