A Monster Calls

UK Release Date 1st January 2016
Director J. A. Bayona
Starring Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall
Runtime 108 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 3rd January 2016

We finally caught up with this one after having to cull it from our utterly impossible LFF 2016 out of necessity. A nice fantastical antidote to the impending return to proper work? Well, not quite, but we’re definitely glad we caught it none the less.

J A Bayona has a somewhat mixed reputation with us. He directed The Orphanage with is easily one of the greatest horror movies we’ve ever seen, but then he also directed The Impossible which we weren’t particularly keen on (though it holds a special place for us as it was one of the first movies we reviewed for this site way back at the start of 2013). Fortunately, his latest, A Monster Calls is closer to the former than the latter.

Lewis McDougall is Conor O’Malley, a school kid with more than the usual bullies and educational ennui to deal with. Conor’s Mum (oddly just listed as ‘Mum’ in the IMDB credits though I’m sure she had an actual name in the movie), played by Felicity Jones has cancer and though the family initially refuse to believe it, the illness is terminal. The rest of Conor’s family life is also in turmoil, Dad (Toby Kebbell) lives in LA with his new wife and family and Grandma (Signorney Weaver) lives in an old lady’s house, filled with old lady’s things (to paraphrase Conor) - a house Conor seems destined to be moved to when his Mum inevitably becomes too ill to look after him.

To combat this building grief (manifesting itself as a recurring nightmare of him dropping his Mum as she clings to him for dear life) and accompanying turmoil, Conor creates a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) out of an ancient yew tree that sits alone on the hill in a cemetery behind his Mum’s house. The Monster occupies a strange place in Conor’s life, being both terrifying, obtuse and oddly a source of comfort to the boy. The Monster insists on relating three tales to Conor, on the completion of which, Conor will complete the story with his own tale - a truth that he cannot face.

It’s a daunting situation for Conor and one that the audience is thrown face first into as the boy first hits the pavement at the hands of the school bullies. The creature conjured out of Conor’s mind is magnificently realised by the effects team, unfurling seamlessly out of the tree with a constant soundtrack of creaks and moans that evoke an image of a tree literally tearing apart. As the limbs entangle the young boy and the creatures eyes glow red, it’s only Neeson’s even delivery that keeps the thing from being something out of a real adult nightmare.

As Conor’s life as he knows it begins to completely unravel, we really feel his impotent frustration as the Monster continues to spin tales of brave princes, wicked witches and shady apothecaries. The tales are rendered in beautifully animated watercolour swishes with explosions of primary colours, contrasting with the black and white of the source book’s artwork (the script here is adapted by Patrick Ness from his own book).

But it’s when the Monster’s tales start to click together that we really understand Conor’s arduous journey and, just as importantly, his destination. And when it does start to click, A Monster Calls is at it’s most powerful. Because the majority of us have been there and by the end, we all will have been there, one way or another. It doesn’t matter if you experienced this grief as a nine year old or a ninety year old, the same levels of anger and deception and incomprehension will still have washed over you, threatening to pull you into the depths, never to return.

Conor’s journey is a universal one and Bayona uses Ness’ Monster to articulate this well. The cast are great, in particular the young McDougall who must have spent a great deal of his time on set with nothing more than green to work with. Weaver is obviously brilliant because she is in everything but here she has a difficult line to tread. Cast as the wicked Grandmother, she manages to cover that but more importantly, she also covers the grieving mother role as she faces the indescribable grief of the loss of her child. Indeed, it’s this balance that serves the movie well with all its characters. Dad is a bit of a fool but not a pantomime cheat, Mum is ill without becoming a victim and Grandma is an old lady, trying her best with a horrible situation. And in flashes of old family pictures, I'm sure you see Neeson - presumably as Grandpa....

Bayona’s camera is well set to highlight Conor’s plight. Teachers are never shown above Conor’s slumped desk height and the Monster is a towering creation, even when perched incongruously in Grandma’s sitting room. Everything about the cinematography, the sets and the effects (both visual and audible) is set to make Conor seem small in his world - the feeling of invisibility he ultimately has to face.

In Short:

There’s nothing especially unusual about the tales at the core of A Monster Calls, they are simple enough parables, but the way the movie lays out Conor’s grieving path through these tales is something magical, devastating and ultimately uplifting to behold. The meshing of fantasy and reality is perfectly pitched and with a series of well balanced characters and unshowy performances to match, the emotional punch by the conclusion is felt where it should be.  

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