A MONSTER CALLS
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenwriter: Patrick Ness, based on his eponymous novel. From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Runtime: 108 mins.
Australian release date: 27 July 2017
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 18 July 2017.
As the titular Monster says in the film, A Monster Calls “begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.” And so it does – it’s a tale that’s terribly sad while, at the same time, uplifting. Catalonian director J.A. Bayona, whose previous film The Impossible was also an emotional roller-coaster ride, has adapted Patrick Ness’s young adult novel into a beautifully crafted visual experience. He has successfully combined fantasy and reality into a saga encompassing themes of love and loss, juxtaposed with courage and hope, in a unique and imaginative way.
Twelve-year-old English lad Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has to confront the overwhelming reality of his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in the USA with his new wife and Conor’s relationship with his domineering grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is fraught at the best of times. The thought of having to live with her if his mother is hospitalised is a cause for anxiety, so he desperately tries to keep mum at home, tending to her and getting himself off to school. Every night he has the same nightmare, until one night at precisely 12:07 he receives a strange visitation from the monstrous spirit of an ancient yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) that stands in the middle of a graveyard at the back of his house. The Monster tells Conor that he will relate three stories to him but then the boy must tell the Monster his own story… and it must be the truth. The fables contain sage but confusing advice about life and the complexity that lies between good and evil. As the Monster recounts them they come to life via beautiful animation that reflects Conor’s love of drawing but they contain some shocking images, in keeping with other parts of this touching, disquieting film.
The young MacDougall has a bright future; he meets the demands of the script well, conveying the emotion and stress of the character of Conor with great veracity. Both Weaver and Jones give outstanding supporting roles, the former playing her first grandmother role, which she takes to with relish. The Monster is grotesquely stunning, a combination of animatronic devices and CGI, which gives him a real sense of life, but it’s Neeson’s voice that sets the tone for the film. He provides Conor with guidelines to find the strength necessary to deal with a world that appears to be incomprehensibly unfair. This is one of the most profound plots to deal with grief that we’ve seen in recent years and it left the preview audience without a dry eye. Author/screenwriter Ness explains, “To me, this is a story about fear of loss. I was really trying above all things to find the truth of how Conor felt; to not lie about it, not sugarcoat it, not sentimentalise it… to really feel how it hurts, because it surely does.”
If you have lost someone you love, or indeed are going through a period where someone you love is very ill, then take comfort in this rewarding piece of cinema. A Monster Calls is equally tender and tough and that’s quite an achievement. It’s an inspiring tale.