Highly creative and well orchestrated is this mystery fantasy about grief. Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), A Monster Calls is a visually stylish, emotional drama. Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, penned the award winning novel on which it’s based.
Twelve year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is hardly your conventional kid. He is about to escape into a fantastical world of monsters and fairy tales. Insular and timid, he is earmarked for ridicule and a hard life. But there are all too real reasons why he is the way he is. For some time, his artistic single mother (Felicity Jones) has been sick – and shows no signs of improving. Dealing with his mum’s illness has necessitated Conor spending time with his less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
At school he’s uninterested academically and bullied by classmates. As Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away in the US, the boy yearns for guidance. He unexpectedly summons a most unlikely ally, who bursts forth with terrifying grandeur from an ancient towering yew tree and the powerful earth below it.
He is a 40-foot-high colossus of a creature (portrayed in performance-capture and voiceover by Liam Neeson), who appears at Conor’s bedroom window at 12:07 one night – and at that time on nights thereafter. The Monster has stories to tell, and he insists Conor hear and visualise them. Conor’s fear gives way to feistiness and then to looking within. The Monster demands that once the tales are told, Conor must tell his own story in return.
Upon reading the book, Bayona recognised at once “themes I’d touched on in The Orphanage and The Impossible: characters finding themselves in a very intense situation, with death on the horizon.”
The iconic novel was based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd and had been published in almost 40 languages. Dowd’s story is an interesting if very sad one. A Monster Calls was to have been her fifth book, but Dowd unfortunately succumbed to cancer soon after starting it. Ness eventually took on the responsibility, despite being initially hesitant.
As far as the film is concerned, the production design is special, in particular the tree “coming to life”. The stories it relays are hardly straightforward, but then neither is the movie. Underpinning it all is the issue of dealing with trauma. Facing up to something can be harrowing at any age, let alone as a youth.
In this case, the trauma takes many forms. There is the fear of losing the person closest to you, precipitating abandonment, the residual effect of a father who has all but walked away and a decidedly prickly relationship with one maternal grandmother. And that is not to overlook habitual bullying at school. Just coping from one day to the next is an almighty burden.
Unconventional, but intriguing and involving, A Monster Calls is intelligent filmmaking. It scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson
Release Date: 27 June 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television