D: J.A. Bayona / 108m
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin
Thirteen year old Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is experiencing nightmares. In them, the church near his home collapses when the ground around it splits open, and Conor has to try and save his mother (Jones) who is in danger of disappearing into one of the fissures this devastation has wrought. When he wakes from these nightmares each night it is always 12:06. But the nightmares aren’t the only problem Conor has to deal with. His mother is suffering from cancer, and she’s not responding well to her treatment. His grandmother (Weaver) keeps mentioning that at some point, Conor will have to come and stay with her, but he doesn’t want to leave his mother; he still clings to the hope that she’ll get better. His father (Kebbell) lives in the US and is generally unsupportive, using the physical distance between them as an excuse. And at school, he’s the victim of bullying by one of the other boys in his class, Harry (Melville).
One night, at 12:07, Conor is drawing a picture of the view from his bedroom window when the large yew tree that is situated in the nearby graveyard transforms into a monster (Neeson) made from the tree’s trunk and branches. It approaches the house and after grabbing Conor from his bedroom, tells him that he’ll receive further visits from the monster, and that the monster will tell him three stories, after which Conor will then tell a fourth story, the truth behind his nightmares, which only he can tell. The monster is true to his word. On the first visit, he tells Conor the story of an old king who marries a young woman who many regard as a witch. When he dies she rules as regent until his grandson comes of age. She rules fairly but doesn’t want to relinquish her position, intending to marry the grandson instead. But the murder of the grandson’s true love leads to her being convicted of the crime, and she is only saved by the monster at the last moment.
The second story concerns an apothecary whose livelihood is condemned by the local parson. When a terrible sickness breaks out, the parson’s two daughters fall ill, and he begs for the apothecary”s help, and swears he will do anything in order for his daughters to live, but the apothecary refuses, and the girls die. The monster appears and demolishes the parson’s house as a further punishment for his lack of faith. The third story concerns a man who feels himself to be invisible because no one ever takes notice of him, but when the monster aids him in this, it doesn’t solve things, merely adds further problems for him to deal with. These stories help Conor to deal with the various emotions he’s struggling with, and to make sense of them, leading inevitably, as the monster predicted, to his telling the fourth story, the truth about his nightmares…
At its heart, A Monster Calls is about impending loss and the grief that comes with it, both before and after. Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, the movie is a dark, compelling, visually innovative tale of personal redemption in the face of overwhelming emotional distress. It’s a children’s tale about adult themes and how they can affect someone who is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”. By making Conor and his struggle to manage the full implications of his mother’s illness – her terminal illness – the focus of the story, Ness and director J.A. Bayona allow the movie to express the kind of feelings and emotions that we forget children can and do experience in these kinds of circumstances. It’s an obvious lesson, but presented in such a clear, immediate manner that Conor’s plight is readily acceptable, and convincingly played out.
There may be some who will query why Conor’s road to the acceptance of his mother’s impending demise needs the presence of a fantasy giant made out of a yew tree. But allegory has always been a pertinent and effective way of dealing with, and expressing, the kinds of emotions that we keep buried inside us because of how painful they are. Conor’s emotions spill out through his nightmares, and in his search for an answer he calls on the monster, albeit unwittingly. When they first meet, Conor makes it clear he’s not scared, and nor should he be; after all, the monster is a creation formed from Conor’s own subconscious. But the stories the monster tells are far more than stories – they’re explanations of the various emotions and feelings that Conor is struggling with. And they pave the way for the truth, the real hurdle he must overcome in order to move forward. All this is relayed in such a plausible, non-sensationalist, and poignant fashion that any doubts as to the efficacy of such an approach is dismissed moments after the movie has begun.
The look of the movie is very important too, and here Bayona mixes a variety of styles to potent effect. There’s an almost documentary feel to the scenes where Conor is at school, as if the camera is eavesdropping on him. Then there are the scenes at home, the modest environment that looks like an inviting update on homes from the Seventies, what with Eugenio Caballero’s production design making everything look that just a little bit lived in, and Pilar Revuelta’s sterling set decoration as well. And then there are the animated interludes, the stories themselves, rendered in a mixture of styles, and each one enhancing the story it portrays. The movie is at its most confident in these sequences, taking the viewer away from the grim real world, and painting portraits of worlds where life is even harsher and less likely to offer the kind of solace Conor needs – at first glance, that is. It’s a brave decision, but one that pays off handsomely, as each sequence is captivating in its own right.
The look of the monster is endlessly fascinating as well, with Neeson’s mo-capped features and physique a perfect fit for such an iconic creature. Despite not being “real”, the monster’s presence in the movie serves as a reminder that fantasy doesn’t have to mean an absence of credibility, and thanks to Ness’s tightly developed screenplay, this isn’t an issue the movie has to deal with at all. As the monster, Neeson delivers a perfectly modulated vocal performance, one replete with emotional nuances and textures that support the drama and justify his role in the production. As the two mothers connected by their shared love for each other, Weaver and Jones both give heartfelt performances that avoid unnecessary sentimentality, while Kebbell’s role calls for him to be affectionate yet callow, sympathetic yet distant, and emotionally obtuse. But it’s MacDougall’s performance that stands out, a complex, yet honest portrayal of a young boy’s struggle to acknowledge his own deep-rooted and frightening feelings about his mother, and what those feelings might do to him if he faces up to them. It’s a quietly bravura performance, generously encouraged by Bayona and the rest of the cast, and is as good as any performance by an adult actor in 2016.
There will be accusations that A Monster Calls is unremittingly bleak, and that its subject matter is not best suited to the so-called Young Adult market that many people will believe this is aimed at. Though Ness wrote the novel with that particular audience in mind, this version transcends notions of age and worldly experience by making Conor’s feelings universal, and for children and adults alike. Yes, it is bleak at times, and yes, it’s not an openly optimistic movie, but it is an uplifting, inspiring movie that celebrates maternal love, the sacrifices adults sometimes have to make to ensure that children remain children for just that little bit longer, and the resilience that we often forget children have when it comes to dealing with the darker aspects of growing up. This is a movie that does something completely unexpected: it challenges us to look at ourselves and ask, if we were in Conor’s shoes, would we beahve any differently? We might not call upon a monster to help us, but then, would it be such a bad idea?
Rating: 9/10 – an impressively mounted exploration of identity, hidden grief, and growing emotional despair, A Monster Calls is a crushingly honest look at how it feels to be losing someone you’re incredibly close to, and how those feelings can affect everything else around you; brilliantly realised, and with a tremendous performance from MacDougall, this is exceptional stuff indeed, and proof that intelligent, thought-provoking movies can also be beautiful and moving at the same time.