A close fried of Guillermo del Toro, it’s easy to see why director J. A. Bayona was drawn to adapting A Monster Calls. A fanciful and chilling tale about a child in turmoil that flits between grim reality and dark fantasy, Patrick Ness’ eponymous novel shares more than a passing similarity to Pan’s Labyrinth. And like that superlative fairytale, A Monster Calls is told with a potency and awesome beauty that will leave you spellbound.
Bayona’s biggest triumph is drawing a powerfully moving performance from near newcomer Lewis MacDougall, who plays 12-year-old Conor O’Malley. Whereas many child characters can be reduced to a single word or type, MacDougall’s Conor is a knotty mess of complexities as he struggles to find a way to cope with his cancer-stricken mum’s (Felicity Jones) impending fate. Resisting an obvious temptation to over emote, MacDougall’s acting is poignantly understated, relaying Conor’s fear, rage, confusion and loneliness with subtle glances and flickered movements as we follow events from his isolated perspective.
Plagued by harrowing nightmares of losing his mum, Conor stays awake late into the night sketching monsters in his bedroom. That is until the ancient yew tree at the bottom of his garden creaks into life, uprooting itself in order to tell Conor three tales of woe, after which he must tell his own story and it must be the truth. Having previously given a voice to Narnia’s sage lion Aslan, Liam Neeson is the ideal choice to lend some gravitas to the centuries-old Monster, his gruff, sonorous growl creating a sinister undertone that perfectly matches its gnarled, grotesquely sinewy design.
Such visual flair runs through the entire endeavour, especially in the telling of the Monster’s first two tales. Mirroring Jim Kay’s evocative illustrations to animate the parables, Bayona utilises an inky storybook effect that’s as scratched and distressed as it is childlike, almost as if a kid has hastily scribbled each scene whilst in the grip of a fearful nightmare. It’s bleakly beguiling stuff.
It’s not just MacDougall and Neeson who impress; the entire cast is exceptional. Felicity Jones wonderfully portrays Conor’s ailing mum, who battles to put on a brave front even as her health progressively weakens. Toby Kebbell, playing Conor’s distant father, cuts a suitably helpless figure as realises he’s utterly powerless to prevent his son from feeling pain. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver proves she makes an excellent icy grandmother while also imbuing her character with a subtle hopelessness that strains against her resilient stubbornness and leaks out whenever the thought of losing her daughter becomes too much to endure.
Bayona and Ness, here adapting his own novel, handle heavy themes of grief and responsibility with uncompromising openness. It’s no spoiler to admit this is not a tale with a happy storybook ending; instead it bravely recognises that life is unfair and tangled with contradictions while extolling the importance of learning to live “messily ever after”. Such grimly observed life lessons are perhaps why some have questioned whether the film will find an audience: surely it’s too bleak for children and far too fantastical for grown ups? Yet that does Bayona and Ness’s work a disservice. A Monster Calls is a heart wrenching, bittersweet tale of loss, masterfully crafted and intricately told. It takes root in your soul and squeezes your heart tight before filling it with life again. And that’s a story to which everyone can relate.
Runtime: 108 mins; Genre: Fantasy/Drama; Released: 1 January 2017;
Director: J. A. Bayona; Screenwriter: Patrick Ness;
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell
This review also featured on FlickFeast.co.uk