By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Darker in tone than its Spielberg-like trailer suggests, A Monster Calls is a beautifully realised drama that examines a child’s pain as he tries to deal with a situation that seems impossible to comprehend. Anchored by an incredible central performance by its young star, this assured blend of fantasy and reality is both imaginative and moving.
The story centres on young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is attempting to cope with the health of his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones), who is dying of cancer. An illness that has haunted the family of two for many years, its brutal physical effects are starting to take a greater toll on Lizzie, but the continually intense nature of the sickness (and the numerous, unsuccessful treatments) is having a significant psychological effect on Conor. The unsettled boy is so fearful of losing his mother that he begins to disconnect himself from the outside world, preferring to embrace the idea of succumbing to the darkness with his frail parent, than even consider the option of moving on after she’s gone.
Arriving on the scene is Lizzie’s mother (Sigourney Weaver), who has already made plans with her daughter to have Conor move to her home after Lizzie has passed away, an arrangement which infuriates Conor. Never wanting to leave his beloved mother’s side, Conor is insistent that a cure will be found and that she will get better, ensuring the two will live happily ever after. Vivid nightmares and increasingly erratic behaviour indicate that Conor is not coping with this growingly bleak predicament.
One night while Conor is drawing, an artistic outlet allowing the youngster to leave the horrors of the real world (which also includes being bullied at school), he is visited by an imposing monster, mutated from the local yew tree that overlooks the local cemetery. This large tree creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) informs Conor that he will be told three stories over as many nights, each one dealing with a character who is facing a seemingly insurmountable problem. After these fables have been imparted, Conor will have to tell a story of his own, one which is directly connected to the nightmare he has been having.
Each story seems to confuse and irritate Conor even more, and this fractured state-of-mind spills over into his interactions with the flesh-and-blood people around him, and it appears that Conor will be unable to overcome the despair that is engulfing him.
A Monster Calls will surprise those who are expecting a lighthearted, family-friendly adventure in the mould of BFG. More in tune with the excellent animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings, this presents a melancholic exploration of a child experiencing death for the first time, using fantasy as a foundation to look at a subject that is highly distressing. Despite Lizzie trying to use good-natured humour to soften the impact of what is happening to her, she can see that her son is having immense difficulty in handling the situation, and once Conor’s behaviour starts to become more aggressive, Lizzie sees she can no longer mask what is inevitably going to happen. This frank treatment of sickness, death, and the possibility of losing a loved one empowers the film’s fantastical elements, which obtain true dramatic weight.
MacDougall (Pan) is extraordinary as Conor, delivering the kind of nuanced performance that belies his young age. His sad, expressive face is used to maximum effect, and MacDougall instinctively walks that fine line between troubled and unlikeable. Conor’s pain is palpable and believable throughout, and this talented actor deserves all the praise that has come his way. Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One) is heartbreakingly real as Lizzie, Weaver (Alien, Gorillas In The Mist) offers strong support as Grandma, and Kebbell is solid as Conor’s estranged father, who has a family of his own in the U.S.
The screenplay by Patrick Ness, adapted from his own novel (and originally based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd), weaves a number of intriguing layers into its Grimm’s fairy tale premise, using the fanciful to tackle a subject many of us would have difficulty facing. This adaptation fares much better than Peter Jackson’s dreadful The Lovely Bones, another film that used fantasy to present a story that involved a child’s first-hand confrontation with death.
Guiding everything is J.A. Bayona, who keeps firm control over the story’s various emotional ingredients and themes, never allowing the drama to become excessively maudlin, but also making sure that the fantasy and frequent CGI never overwhelms the characters and the journeys they are taking. Bayona has had previous success mixing the personal with the otherworldly with the highly-acclaimed The Orphanage in 2007. He then surprised his newly acquired fans by directing The Impossible (2012), an astonishingly accomplished and extremely moving retelling of a family’s torturous encounters with the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath.
Bayona’s output will certainly draw comparisons to Guillermo Del Toro (notably Pan’s Labyrinth), but Bayona consistently manages to give his material a poignant emotional core, something Del Toro doesn’t always achieve. The Spanish helmer tips his hat here to other movies, particularly Bernard Rose’s little-seen but terrific Paperhouse (1989), Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams (1989), Maurice Pialat’s A Mouth Agape (1974), and Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973).
Technically the film is first-rate, with exemplary work by Bayona’s regular cinematographer Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velazquez. Geraldine (daughter of Charles) Chaplin, who has appeared in Bayona’s previous two features, turns up again in a small role.
In lesser hands, A Monster Calls could have easily been a mawkish, effects-heavy misfire. But in the hands of Bayona and his gifted cast and crew, what we do have is a thoughtful, intelligently crafted picture that handles its dour material with sensitivity and compassion.