Great loss sparks great drama in a new TV offering

The Beast Must DieAMCAfter the death of her young son in a hit-and-run incident, Frances Cairnes (Cush Jumbo, late of The Good Fight) becomes consumed with hunting down and destroying the man she believes is responsible. Thinking she’s found the culprit, Frances infiltrates the life of rich and morally ambivalent George Rattery (Mad Men star Jared Harris) and starts plotting his murder from within. Meanwhile, the small island community is joined by a new detective inspector, who takes it upon himself to look into this cold case, unaware that he might be in a race against the clock to stop another homicide from taking place.

The six-episode revenge drama, based on a 1938 novel by Daniel Day-Lewis’s father Cecil, under the pen name Nicholas Blake, explores how the depths of suffering can give rise to unexpected consequences. In adapting it for the screen, Gaby Chiappe found an organic way to modernize the material. “In the book, Cush’s character is actually male and, instinctively, that felt rather familiar now. I was personally much more interested in that character as a woman,” says Chiappe. “The rest of it—because it’s a very emotionally driven novel about what’s happening internally to people—that journey is still the same.”

The Beast Must DieAMCTolkien director Dome Karukoski, who helms all six episodes, feels that society’s attitude toward corporal punishment has changed since the book was written, making Frances’s vendetta perhaps more controversial than it was in 1938. “A big question that inflicts Cush’s character is, what is the moral justice in terms of her actions?” the Finnish director muses. “In the 1930s, it felt more justifiable. There’s a very intriguing passage in the book which basically plays with the question, is it okay to kill someone like George? But, for me, the narrative works better in contemporary times.”

Jumbo was immediately attracted to the character Chiappe created. “I was drawn towards it emotionally,” says the British actress. “I have a two-year-old son myself, and it was about the murder of a young child, so I was able to relate to that.” Jumbo also looked forward to portraying the range of this woman. “What Gaby had written was so epic in its scale of what quite an ordinary person goes through,” she says. “The scale on which Frances was operating was really going to go from zero to 100. There was lots of physical prep, but a lot of it was emotional and looking at what happens to a person when they really are able to go off-road.”

Inspector Detective Nigel Strangeways, portrayed by The Serpent’s Billy Howle, isn’t too steady on his own feet either. Having relocated to the Isle of Wight after the death of his colleague, his trauma and PTSD unravel through sessions with his therapist, played by series producer Nathaniel Parker. “We had Gaby’s brilliant writing but we still had a level of flexibility and creativity in those sessions to really find out what was truly wrong with Nigel Strangeways, how he came to be so broken, and what precipitated this move to the Isle of Wight and his new life,” says Howle. “This idea of escape was quite important, the Isle of Wight being somewhere that is isolated. We’re aware of this body of water that’s surrounding this island, so although it’s an escape, it also ends up being a form of entrapment.”

The Beast Must DieAMCThe series was shot on location, which, from a production standpoint, ended up being fortunate as the Isle of Wight was one of the places with the lowest rate of COVID-19 infections last year. But the reason the island was chosen for the series was always for story purposes. “I wanted Frances to not be somebody with a privileged background but be able to sail,” says Chiappe. “My police advisers had lived on the Isle of Wight and said there’s loads of people there who keep a really rubbishy car on the road so that they can also keep a boat. Everybody there sails.”

Being at the mercy of not just an emotional character arc but also the elements, Jumbo discovered new dimensions in herself. “I was asked to do some things on this job that I would go home at night and my husband would laugh in my face that I’d done them. I never swim in the sea, let alone walk on the bottom of it, and I don’t stand in the freezing cold and get pelted with rain, and I don’t hang off the edge of cliffs—all this stuff scares me,” she admits. “This script is one of the most intricate, un-potholed scripts I’ve ever worked with, so to be able to just focus on the story and let that story pass through you was such a joy, almost on a Shakespearean level. I was pushed as an actor and pushed in myself, and now I’m much stretchier.”

The Beast Must Die airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on AMC