SHOT partly on location in Jersey, Michael Pearce’s impressive debut feature Beast is a deeply unsettling character study that jangles nerves like a persistent itch you can’t quite reach.

Jim Williams’s disquieting orchestral score offsets the rugged beauty of island locales, captured in suffocating close-up by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who is finely attuned to the paranoia that drips from every line of Pearce’s lean script.

Jessie Buckley delivers a searing lead performance as a guilt-riddled 20-something who becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer shortly after she falls under the spell of the prime suspect.

Guilt and innocence become increasingly hard to separate as the film gathers momentum, culminating in another dinner table outburst that jolts the nurture versus nature debate sharply in one direction.

Haunted by a shocking incident in her past, flame-haired shrinking violet Moll (Buckley) submits to a joyless life under the thumb of her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James).

When she is not singing meekly in a choir, Moll takes care of her father (Tim Woodward) and blushingly accepts awkward romantic overtures from a police officer (Trystan Gravelle).

Moll’s birthday party in the back garden of the family home turns into an opportunity for her favoured sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet) to announce she is pregnant, so the birthday girl slips away unnoticed.

The following morning, Moll encounters Pascal (Johnny Flynn), whose wilful disregard for etiquette is a thrilling antidote to the starchy formality practised by her mother.

The misfits fall head over heels in lust and Hilary makes clear her disapproval. This rejection only fuels Moll’s rebellion and inflames the young woman’s raging desire for Pascal. Moll and her uncouth beau forge ahead until he is arrested for the murders of young women on the island and Moll prepares to give a false alibi.

Beast is a brooding adult fairytale of female empowerment and sexual awakening that might have tumbled from the pen of Angela Carter. Buckley and Flynn are an electrifying pairing and James sends shivers down the spine with each withering glance and whispered threat. Pearce’s engrossing thriller certainly doesn’t pull its punches, scenting the air with discomfort until the threat of sickening violence almost chokes us.

RATING: 8/10