Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: J A Boyona
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin.
The films of Spanish filmmaker J A Bayona have dealt with families in crisis and children in peril, and they have always had a strong emotional subtext running through them. His previous films have included the horror film The Orphanage, and The Impossible, which told the story of a family affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. His third feature film is A Monster Calls, a mix of horror and complex coming of age story, which is perceptive and thoughtful. However, it is not for younger audiences as some scenes may be a little too intense and scary, and its themes of death, mortality, bullying, and confronting your fears a little deep.
A Monster Calls is based on the novel originally written by Shiobhan Dowd, who was suffering from a terminal illness and found the story a way of dealing with her own sense of mortality. She died before completing the novel, and it was completed in 2011 by novelist Patrick Ness, who has also written the screenplay.
Conor (played by newcomer Lewis McDougall, from Pan, etc) is a 12-year-old boy who is struggling to cope with the ugly reality that his mother is dying from cancer. He is in denial. At night he suffers a recurring nightmare in which he is unable to save his mother from death as she falls into an abyss. Conor is also being bullied at school. His estranged father (Toby Kebbell, from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, etc) now lives in California and is not about to return home. Even though his father returns for a brief visit it is clear he has no intention of leaving California. Conor is forced to live with his hard-nosed and overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). The two are a bad fit, but will have to try and learn to live together.
One night, at 12.07 (the significance of this time will become apparent later in the film) Conor is awoken by the booming voice of a yew tree outside his window. The monster says that he has come, not to help save Conor’s mother but to save him. He says that he will tell Conor three stories and then he expects Conor to tell him his own tale which will reveal a truth about him. However, each tale is a profound morality tale which doesn’t always end in the obvious way, which confuses Conor. Through the film, and eventually through his understanding of these stories, Conor learns some tough lessons in life and survival and overcoming his fears and pain.
A Monster Calls is about the power of stories to transform lives, and Bayona gets the balance right between the fantasy elements and the darker realities of Conor’s world. There are some great special effects here which bring the yew tree to life, but they serve the material rather than overwhelm it. Liam Neeson (Taken, etc) provides the distinctive and solemn voice of the yew tree, and his facial expressions have been captured through the use of motion capture technology. He brings a sense of gravitas to the material.
But the film rests on the shoulders of young MacDougall, who is virtually on screen the whole time. He delivers a wonderfully natural and sensitive performance that captures the pain and loneliness of childhood. Felicity Jones (from The Theory Of Everything, Rogue One, etc) is good as Conor’s mother. Weaver has a strong presence here as Conor’s grandmother, but she struggles to sustain a British accent and is arguably the weakest link in an otherwise strong ensemble.
A Monster Calls is a deeply affecting coming of age tale, although it seems a little unsure of its target audience. Nonetheless Bayona provides a thoughtful approach to the complex materia and there is much to admire about its technical proficiency. The film won 9 Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar) for its direction and its special effects. The book was illustrated by Jim Kay, and Bayona’s film does justice to his vision, as there are also some spectacular animations that bring the monsterâ€™s moral fables to life.
There is some gorgeous cinematography from Bayona’s regular collaborator Oscar Faura, who uses lamp lighting to add to the oppressive mood. Oriol Tarrago’s wonderfully intricate sound design is superb and enhances the fantasy, and there is a delicate score from Fernando Velazques that underscores the drama. The third act is emotionally satisfying. the bullying subplot eventually goes nowhere of interest.