LFF 2019 Film Review: Rare Beasts ★★★

“Money. Cock. Promotion.” Welcome to the inner thoughts of British women!

Beloved British actress Billie Piper (Doctor Who, Penny Dreadful, Yerma) takes the reigns, acting as writer, director and star of the fantastically dark, anti-rom-com, Rare Beasts.

The film opens with a dinner where Mandy (Piper) and her date Pete (Leo Bill) attack each other like an old bitter couple. He criticises her physical appearance (too many teeth) while Mandy wonders out loud if she’s about to be raped this evening. It’s a battle more than a conversation, but somewhere beneath the bile is a strange intellectual spark. Oh God, is she actually attracted to this man?

Rare Beasts is an internal monologue given vision and sound, all Freudian id running loose. Each character is a grotesque version of reality, seen through the filter of Mandy’s mind. Pete is an emasculated Christian who can’t reconcile what he wants with what he thinks he should want. Love is a cult full of weirdos, and other women can lack just as much understanding as men.

The men in Mandy’s life are exaggerated ghouls. Pete complains about women with large hands making his dick look small. Her father is a likable but selfish fool who left her mother. Her boss an arrogant dismissive asshole. “No one wants to read about angry women,” she’s told. And yet, she hates to admit, she still needs a man, or wants one, in her life.

The women don’t fare much better. Lily James cameos as an annoyingly perfect bride telling Mandy to love whole-heartedly, or else risk damaging the “brand” of women. A night in with friends is a cocaine-fuelled gab-fest that doesn’t end well. When Mandy doesn’t live up to either ideal of “strong, independent woman” or “perfect doting wife” she’s attacked for letting the side down.

Rare Beasts has a lot going on and is visually claustrophobic. There are a lot of very tight close-ups and dark rooms, compounded by an unusually dark visual palate, making the shadows infinitely deep, which I at first thought was an error in the colour grading. In many ways this feels like a short film that has grown into a fully fledged feature, so tightly packed are the ideas and observations. Mandy is Bridget Jones’s darker, weirder, sharper cousin.

Billie Piper has had a multifaceted career already, and adding writing and directing to her list of skills is a natural extension. Rare Beast feels intensely personal, some of the observations about womanhood and her own body, come from a very raw place. At one point Mandy starts undressing while listing all the things she doesn’t like about her body…ending in a very intimate reveal.

A little tonally uneven and overworked in places, Rare Beasts is still an entertaining watch. There are moments of pure comedy gold and some stunning visuals (the finale filmed outside London’s Alexandra Palace at sunset is as beautiful as it is fun). I enjoyed Rare Beasts a lot, and the women around me seemed to be in tighter sync with the material. Billie Piper’s next act looks set to be a very interesting one.

By Chad Armstrong

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