A Monster Calls review
Largely ignored by audiences and award shows alike on its initial release, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week, where hopefully it will find the audience it deserves. Granted, it’s a tough film to market – part allegorical fantasy, part gritty drama – which no doubt contributed to the disappointing box office figures, but this is a film you really need to see.
Based on Patrick Ness’s devastating young adult novel, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. He is bullied at school and struggling to cope at home. His father is no longer on the scene, and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a strict old battle-axe. One night, at exactly 12:07am he is visited by a Monster, claiming that Conor called him. The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor that he will return and tell him three stories, and then Conor must tell him a fourth, and it must be the truth.
The film is an absolute technical triumph, beautifully shot, mixing live action with gorgeous watercolour animation, and coupled with exquisite sound and production design. The Monster, which emerges from the centre of a centuries old yew tree, has a certain Entish quality about it, but still looks tremendous, based as it is on the original artwork from the book. Bayona most definitely has an eye for a shot, but it is his deft handling of the difficult emotional material that deserves the most praise.
As his mother’s condition deteriorates in the real world, the Monster visits Conor each night at 12:07 to tell him a story. The stories themselves are simple fables, but they confuse and enrage Conor. Why are bad people getting away with things? Why are good people punished? The Monster could tell him comforting lies, but instead reveals painful truths.
Working from Ness’s excellent script, Bayona neatly emphasises the power of storytelling, and the need for stories to make life more understandable. A Monster Calls is a film that exists in the difficult grey area of life, full of hard questions and even harder answers. Just as the Monster guides Conor, the film itself helps to make sense of, and navigate the treacherous emotional landscape of life’s most elemental fears. Both the book and the film should be on the national curriculum.
The final word on this film must go to Lewis MacDougall, who in only his second film delivers an absolutely sensational performance. Stunning visual effects mean nothing without a beating human heart at the centre of the story. MacDougall is the heart and soul of A Monster Calls, and he is note perfect from start to finish. Be warned…the final 20 minutes of this film, when Conor tells the fourth story, will destroy you.