It starts quiet and then turns loud as the ground falls away beneath him. Connor (Lewis MacDougall) reaches out but the hand slips from his grasp, down into the giant hole in the earth. Loss is central to A Monster Calls; for the grief it provokes and the grief that comes with not knowing what to do next. For all the faraway fables and destructive damage, it’s this very personal feeling that underpins a superb adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel (he writes the screenplay himself) of the same name.
Sitting above the personal story is plenty of spectacular fantasy filler, much of it extremely creepy. That’s hardly unexpected from director J. A. Bayona, the person who gave us The Orphanage. Connor lives in a charmingly messy house with his ailing mother (Felicity Jones). She has cancer and the number of treatments left to try is fast diminishing. Piled on top of Connor’s life is the possibility of moving in with his strict and fastidious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), the absence of his father (Toby Kebbell) who now lives in LA, and a school bully (James Melville) who takes great delight in daily beatings. In short, it’s a miserable time.
Things are not helped when the giant Yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes to life as a fiery monster, smashing a hole in his house to tell three bewilderingly dark tales in return for one from Connor. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, sounds a little like an echoey Aslan, and seems just as inclined to speak in confusing riddles as C.S. Lewis’ Jesus lion.
The film A Monster Calls will become is not immediately visible from the start. The opening segments feel a little like Pan’s Labyrinth with training wheels. The monster is a terrifying sight, but his animated stories are brief and tangential. There are weaknesses in the real world too, most noticeably the half-baked bullying sub-plot that never really goes anywhere, and a performance from Weaver that’s as if she’s auditioning to play the governess in a Sunday night ITV period drama.
Bit by bit misgivings fall away as his mother continues to ail and visits from the monster, always visibly impressive, become more personal in nature. Neeson is a good choice for the monster. His voice fits the exasperatingly vague nature of the creature, and Neeson the tree actually displays more emotional range than Neeson the man has in a while. Even better is MacDougall, who fills Connor with uncontrollable rage. That rage manifests itself in the occasional orgy of destruction, but more often it burns up impotently as he’s left to watch from the side-lines.
The longer the film goes on, the better it becomes, and the more its true nature is revealed. A Monster Calls is really a deeply moving meditation on the grieving process as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The confusing source of his often conflicting emotions is teased out gradually, arriving at a conclusion that will not leave many dry eyes in the house. A lot of lessons are taught over the course of just under two hours, all achieved organically without stilted lecturing. It’s this that allows an emotional pay-off unmatched by any other mainstream film this year.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay), Patrick Ness (based upon the novel written by)
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall
Country: USA, Spain