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Grieving mom Frances Cairnes (Cush Jumbo) opens “The Beast Must Die” with these chilling words: “I am going to kill a man.”
And, from there, the six-part thriller shifts into maximum overdrive.
Premiering Monday (July 5) on AMC+, it’s based on the novel by Nicholas Blake — aka Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (the late father of three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis) — and was shot on location on the Isle of Wight, about a 20-minute ferry ride from the south coast of England.
That’s where Frances’ six-year-old son, Martin, ran out of sight one Easter Sunday and was killed on a winding road by a hit-and-run driver, who was never apprehended. It’s now three months later and, when Frances learns the local police have all-but-closed the case after a lazy, shoddy investigation, she’s enraged. She quits her schoolteaching job, cashes in her late husband’s life-insurance policy, cuts her hair and adopts her maiden name — posing as an author researching her murder-mystery novel in order to find the driver and kill him.
Meanwhile, the Isle of Wight has a new chief detective. He’s Nigel Strangeways (cue the James Bond movie), who’s just transferred from London after his female partner was murdered on the job. Nigel (Billy Howle, who looks a bit like Ben Whishaw), has the requisite emotional baggage and is suffering from PTSD after his partner’s death vis a vis major panic attacks. He’s trying, unsuccessfully, to control his trauma through therapy and by scaring off his demons listening to ear-splitting thrash-metal music (or something) on headphones. Not a happy camper but, hey, it’s a common trope in these dramas, so no one’s expecting him to break out in song.
Frances’ plan takes a turn when, under her guise as an author, she befriends Lena (Mia Tomlinson), who was at the crime scene the day Martin was killed along with her brother-in-law, George Rattery (Jared Harris), with whom she’s having an affair. He’s a slimy, malevolent multi-millionaire married to Lena’s meek sister, Violet (Maeve Dermody) — and Frances is convinced he drove the car that hit her son. “In the real world, if you’re smart enough to get away with something, you probably deserve to,” he says to Frances without flinching as the circumstantial evidence against him piles up. He’s that kind of guy, and Frances moves with Lena into one of George’s guest houses for the summer, plotting his murder, seething…and lying in wait to drop the hammer and avenge Martin’s death.
There’s enough angst here for all of the main characters — and then some — and “The Beast Must Die” progresses at a nice clip. Jumbo and Harris are both terrific; “She looks at you like lunch,” George’s condescendingly obnoxious, racist sister (Geraldine James) tells her brother about Frances, and she’s right: as Frances seethes at George with hatred and disgust, he senses that she’s onto his game and they lock horns in an unspoken battle infused with a tangible tension.
I found Nigel’s subplot a bit distracting; you can almost set your watch in a “Here comes another Nigel panic attack in 3…2…1” kind of way. His story, which includes the sister of his late partner, isn’t all-that-interesting; it’s an unnecessary contextual contrivance that diverts attention away from the fascinating cat-and-mouse showdown between Frances and George — and that, in itself, makes “The Beast Must Die” worthy of your attention. Check this one out.
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