Click here to listen to the flashback interview with Idris Elba for TAKERS.
BEAST is a surprisingly heartwarming story about a rogue lion rampaging his way across the African savannah after poachers slaughter his pride. If one wanted to parse the subtext, one could draw neat parallels between the male lion, unable to save his lionesses and cubs from the hail of bullets after he wandered off, and Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba), a New York doctor whose African wife succumbed to cancer after they separated. leaving his two daughters traumatized. Yes, it’s a reach, but not a long one, especially not in a film that doesn’t exactly side with the rogue lion, but most assuredly lets us understand his motivation.
Elba, if there was any doubt about this, here demonstrates why he is one of the finest actors working today. The role is not groundbreaking, but he makes it compelling. He is a sad-eyed, guilt-ridden father trying to piece his family back together in the year since his estranged wife died. His teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Nora (Leah Jeffries) are coping with varying degrees of resentment and bitterness, so a trip to Africa, and their mother’s home village, seems like a good idea. Nate is certainly bursting with the effort to be upbeat and endlessly patient with the jabs and sulks that bringing his girls to a place without cell reception or wi-fi, not to mention reminders of the mother they lost, naturally engender. All that goes by the wayside, of course, when during their first day of sightseeing with Nate’s old friend, Martin (Sharlto Copely), who takes them to the parts of the nature preserve he manages that is off limits to the general public. There amid the scenic splendor of Africa, he shows off the wildlife, and gets a hug from a non-rogue lion, one he raised up from a cub before releasing him back into the wild. It’s also a tidy way of mentioning a few nature facts that will come in handy for Nate, and us, to know later on when things go south.
They discover a non-tourist village that has been decimated by the rogue lion, and then, while stopped to help a wounded villager, are confronted by the lion itself. It leaves them emotionally shaken, as is only natural when their lives are so sorely threatened. Worse, stranded beyond radio signals in a damaged vehicle with the lion lying in wait for them to make a wrong move.
Director Baltasar Kormákur moves his camera dynamically throughout. There are tracking shots that create a thoroughly immersive experience as the camera whips around the characters as they move. He’s equally adept when capturing the tight action of a lion trying to batter its way into the vehicle, or claws as Nate when he’s trapped beneath it as his girls scream from within. It may be claustrophobic, but it’s never static. It’s so effective that that the score, bombastic but in keeping with the tension of the piece, is almost unnecessary, fun though it is.
It is Elba, though, that grounds the film and makes it resonate beyond being a mere action/adventure. There is a shadow of sorrow even when he is at his most upbeat in trying to engage Nate’s daughters. You don’t need the tragic backstory. His body and soul bespeaks a tragedy that has left Nate broken and going on solely for the girls. This is no super hero, nor fantasy figure of preternatural survival skills a la Bond (and, yes, he should be in the running for that role). This is a man with a huge, bruised heart and no answers about how to heal it, or those of his daughters, only the drive to keep moving to make things right.
BEAST is a bracing adventure that bends, but never quite breaks the rules of common sense as it follows two fathers fighting back against an unfair world. Far less gory than it could have been, it’s a fast-paced flick with some clever twists and that performance that makes what happens at any given moment matter. A lot.