Happy New Year everybody! The extravagance and overall comfort of the holiday season always makes it incredibly hard to venture out there in to the cold and get back in the swing of the cinema going game, but hey, we can’t all lay on the couch under a duvet eating chocolate and watching Mary Poppins on repeat forever, can we? To help ease me back in, I decided to choose something a little unusual, something that I wasn’t sure would work but nonetheless something that I was eager to experience, J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls.
A big screen adaptation of the 2011 Patrick Ness novel, A Monster Calls is a low fantasy melodrama that explores the issue of childhood grief and coping mechanisms, and it does it in a completely innovative and pretty extraordinary way. Protagonist Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is young, bullied school boy whose mother (played by Felicity Jones) is beginning to lose her battle with cancer. With the prospect of losing the person he loves the most looming and the reality of being forced to live with his trying grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) hitting him hard, Conor’s artistic tendencies appear to come to life when he begins to be visited by a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who comes to tell him three stories, all of which have metaphorical implications on Conor’s real life situation, and which help him to navigate the almost unimaginable scenario of having to say goodbye to a parent when still a child. Though the narrative may sound more than a tad BFG-ish, the truth is that A Monster Calls is a heart wrenchingly emotional journey that just happens to have a child as its focus, it doesn’t particularly feel like a children’s film at all, and that is to its advantage.
As the monster’s visits become more regular, the lines between fantasy and reality become more blurred, and this makes for a rather hypnotic viewing experience that explores the themes of death, guilt, hope and grieving in a way that I have rarely seen on screen before. The stories told to Conor are presented in an exquisite animated form that, whilst being entirely different from the cinematography of the rest of the picture, feel completely appropriate to the tone and atmosphere of the overall piece. If the film can be criticised in any way, it is for the heavy handedness of its button pushing in the face of a child losing their mother. Tears were never not going to flow at a story like this, and the film could be accused of being slightly too manipulative at certain points, but overall the filmmakers walk the line pretty well, and as I mentioned before, a few interesting points of view are brought up concerning the subject matter that don’t often get highlighted in these types of dramatic stories, especially Conor’s final, heartbreakingly poignant confession to the monster.
Appearing in pretty much ever single scene in the film, young Lewis MacDougall gives a fantastic performance as Conor O’Malley, a boy who is dealing with more than any person his age should have to. It was vital for the heart of the film that MacDougall be the endearing, complicated, sympathetic mixture of angry and desperately sad that sums up Conor’s current state, and he really does knock it out of the park, more than holding his own both alongside a green screen monster and his more experienced, seasoned adult colleagues. Playing an entirely different role as Rogue One’s Jyn Erso just a screen away whilst I was at the cinema, Felicity Jones really shows her versatility with a crushingly authentic and heart wrenching performance as a young mother who is dealing with the duel fight of trying keep herself alive and keep her son from emotionally crumbling in front of the full extent of her illness. Jones and MacDougall spark a great on screen chemistry, which makes the final third of the film all together more gut wrenching when the distressing inevitable occurs. Sigourney Weaver as the testing but ultimately caring grandmother is a slightly more questionable casting choice, with a suspect British accent and a screen presence that is almost too big for the part she is playing. Not to say that she is bad, as a staunch Alien fan I could never say such a thing, but what I will say is that rather than getting lost in the character as you do with Jones and MacDougall, there very much remains an essence of ‘that’s Sigourney Weaver!’ whenever grandma is on screen.
Overall, I can confidently say that A Monster Calls is quite unlike anything I have ever seen. The fantastical imagery and narrative execution combined with the devastating truth and repercussions of the real life situation at hand makes for a gripping and completely unique cinematic experience. It might not be one for the very coldest hearts that are affronted by the slightest attempt at heart string tugging, but for those of us who don’t mind weeping alone in a darkened theatre, it proves to be one hell of a magical, cathartic experience. And trust me, you’ll need tissues, preferably an entire box.