Connect with us

Movie Reviews

Rare Beasts ★★★★



Director: Billie Piper

Cast: Billie Piper, Lily James, David Thewlis, Jonjo O’Neill

Released: 21st May 2021 in UK Cinemas

Premiering originally at London Film Festival in 2019, but finally releasing in cinemas this week, writer-director-star Billie Piper’s directorial debut Rare Beasts has been sharply marketed as an ‘anti-romcom’. And anti-romcom is certainly the descriptor that best befits the fierce, uncompromising fruits of Piper’s labour of (anti-)love, a head-spinning, headfirst dive into the experiences of a modern woman trying to navigate the depths of herself, the toxicity of men, and the trials of parenthood as both a daughter and a mother.

In Rare Beasts, Piper stars as Mandy. She’s a TV producer who spends her days coming up with ideas that fly or fall on whether a man cares to pay them attention, and a single mother to a behaviorally challenged son (Toby Woolf), who she dotes on and struggles with in equal measure. Against her better judgment, perhaps, Mandy has decided that she wants a man. We meet that man in a tone-setting restaurant date scene that plays over the opening credits. Mandy’s co-worker Pete, played with iraciating believability by a brilliant Leo Bill, is a beady-eyed and bearded Bible-bashing type with a misogynistic mean streak. He finds women ‘intolerable’, berates cunnilingus – heaven forbid a woman be the focus of sexual intimacy – and yet has the distinctly male type of entitlement complex that emboldens him to declare ‘you’ll marry me within a year’. Mandy, almost inexplicably, has a perverse sort of admiration for Pete’s open abhorrence, and even as she questions whether her date could rape her, she nevertheless seems determined to see things through.

By the time we meet Mandy’s bullish mother (Kerry Fox) and boozed-up father (David Thewlis), long since separated but still infected with the type of love for one another that makes you say, “I want yours to be the last face I see before I die”, Mandy’s twisted idea of romance becomes more understandable. She doesn’t want stability so much as honesty, nor passion so much as persistence, which Pete, noxious as he may be, provides and then some. While many grow up thinking of roses when dreaming of love, Mandy has evidently fixated on the thorns, which is something Piper conveys with conviction both behind and in front of the camera. 

Throughout her film, Piper utilises monologuing moments that don’t go for full-on Fleabag fourth wall breaks – though the film’s openness about sex and the female experience certainly brings to mind PWB’s masterful post-modern feminist TV series – but rather act as a literal spilling out of Mandy’s thoughts into words as she flits from one semi-surrealist situation to the next. This occasional flirtation with the fantastical contributes to many of the film’s most inventive and memorable moments. A scene early on where Mandy walks down the street as women pass in every direction, tapping their temples and repeating satirically side-swiping personal mantras, has the overly expressive quality of a musical. When she and Pete go to a ‘post-post-post feminist’ friend’s wedding, providing Lily James a brief but impactful presence in the film, the night descends into what can only be described as an incredibly aggressive but sort of beautiful succession of dances. James’ bride, Pete, Mandy, and her son each say in sways and stomps what even Piper’s razor-sharp writing cannot quite articulate. A scene later in the film where a younger Mandy tap dances for her parents’ attention as they partake in a series of part-Brechtian, part-Loachian tableaus is something truly quite special.

Whilst some critics have responded to Rare Beasts with accusations that Piper’s directorial debut sees the multi-hyphenate star biting off more than she can chew, it seems quite evident to me that she has made exactly the kind of meal of her movie that she intended to. In taking an ‘everything and the’ approach to kitchen sink social realist drama, subverting the tropes of the rom-com to blackly comic but sociopolitically incisive ends, Piper has managed to make something that feels intensely personal and yet universally appreciable. In the form of Mandy, who is unapologetically unglamorous and unconventionally feminist, Piper has found a vessel for her self-exploration as an artist not dissimilar to that seen in last year’s I Hate Suzie. That particular show, which Piper co-created, similarly explored the contradictions and deep-rooted frustrations and aspirations of a 30-something mother trying to survive and thrive in today’s pressure-cooker society.

There’s a clear nihilistic energy to Piper’s work as writer, director, and star of this anti-paean to modern living, but even when the film does threaten to go off the rails or induce a tonal whiplash, the sheer veracity of Piper’s efforts make for compelling viewing. The way that we are taken on a whirlwind ride through Mandy’s world that sees stress and self-immolation threatened at every turn, only to arrive at a conclusion that can be earnestly described as wholesome, is a testament to the first-time director’s confidence in her own convictions. Rare Beasts sees Billie Piper give us fire, fantasy, fury, and so much more in a remarkable first turn in the director’s seat.

Some may question why Piper chose to present this work the way she did, but the answer is oh so very simple – because she wants to.

A simple guy. Loves film. Watches film. Writes about film. Talks about film. Then the cycle repeats.

Just For You