ON IN CINEMAS
A Monster Calls
Lewis MacDougall plays Connor, a 12 year old boy who lives with his mother (Felicity Jones). An imaginative child who loves drawing fantastical creatures and watching old monster movies, he is regularly bullied at school. His estranged father (Toby Kebbell) lives and works in America but comes over to visit when he can. Worst of all however is that his mum is suffering from a potentially fatal illness, resulting in her being sent back to hospital and him being forced to live with his rather stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
He is plagued by a series of strange dreams involving a local churchyard collapsing into the ground, and an ancient yew tree that he can see from his window coming to life in the form of a huge, gnarled monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Over the course of the film, the creature tells him three fairytale-like stories - and tells Connor that, after he has finished, he must, in turn, tell the fourth.
Adapted from his own novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls may involve a boy being wrapped up in a fairytale-like fantasy world, but is about as far from the realm of Harry Potter as it is possible to get. It’s quite a unique experience in that the fantastical aspects, while initially seeming escapist, actually teach the boy that reality is far from the black/white and good/evil world that is so typical of children’s stories. While dramatic events occur in the monster’s trio of tales, it transpires that Connor (in his dreamlike state) acts them out in reality as a consequence of the heartbreaking family situation he has found himself in. In turn, the consequences of his actions further reveal the gravity and complexity of the real world. In its own way, the narrative functions in the manner of peeling away the layers of an onion in front of the viewer… and yes, it will make them cry. Seriously, this is one of the most effectively tear-jerking films of recent years.
It works beautifully and blends its divergent stylistic and tonal aspects incredibly well. Most of the exteriors were shot around Northern England, and the dismal grey hues of the school yard and rubbish-strewn sink estate where Connor lives (while not quite Kes) do veer in the direction of social realism. On the other hand, the neighbouring church and rural landscapes, along with the eccentric bric-a-brac filled interiors of Connor’s mother’s and grandmother’s houses have a kind of gothic fancifulness in which the boy’s imagination can run riot. The CGI monster of the title is a grand, intimidating beast that seamlessly blends with the grim landscape. The final (and most impressive) scene style is that of the narrated fairytales, adopting a sort of animated pencil and water-coloured children’s storybook feel for some of the most visually imaginative moments seen on the screen in recent years. What connects this disparate stylistic tapestry is the muted yet rich colour scheme that the film adopts. By the same token, the tone veers from scary to magical to sad and, once or twice, even a bit humorous - but in a way that erupts so naturally from the story that the shifts don’t feel forced.
The acting is top-notch throughout. Felicity Jones keeps her performance restrained, balancing frailty at her condition with the kind of warm, generous motherhood that would make her loss especially tragic. Sigourney Weaver is very effective playing an unusual role; she starts out as an icily intimidating figure but becomes more complex as Connor starts to learn about her. Toby Kebbell works well as an essentially amiable father who tries hard to understand and meet Connor and his mother’s needs, but retains a visible sadness as he knows he is falling desperately short. Liam Neeson brings his substantial gravity and presence as the booming-voiced monster. However, it is the young Edinburgh-born actor Lewis MacDougall who is the most impressive of all, displaying a maturity and emotional range in his performance that is well beyond his years.
As much as I loved A Monster Calls (and, although 2017 has just started, I can see it making my “best of the year” list) it shook me emotionally to the core. While it comes hugely recommended it also comes with a warning: it is an emotionally intense experience, as having a terminally ill close family member would be. It gets a 12A certificate despite having no graphic violence, no sex and no bad language - and it will be too much for unaccompanied children. It’s a must see, but do prepare yourself beforehand. While the advice “bring some hankies” might be a cliche, it really does apply here.
Runtime: 108 mins
Dir: J.A. Bayona
Script: Patrick Ness, adapted from his own novel
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin, Liam Neeson (voice)