Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenplay: Patrick Ness
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson
Plot: 12-year-old English schoolboy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) struggles to cope with the terminal illness of his mother (Jones) while being regularly bullied at school. One night, he is visited by a giant humanoid tree-creature (voiced by Neeson) who has come to tell him stories and may well help to cure his mum.
Based on its promotional material, A Monster Calls, inspired by author Siobhan Dowd and based off the novel by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), was largely advertised as a family film. On seeing it though, it is difficult to judge who its intended audience is meant to be. Its story and themes are quite dark and upsetting for children and perhaps too melodramatic for adults. However, it would be a shame to view the film like this as it is a beautifully-crafted story handled with great sensitivity by director J.A. Bayona.
While some inevitable comparisons may be made with last year’s The BFG (which had a similar child and giant creature relationship), A Monster Calls is by far more bleak and tear-jerking. This is largely because of how it deals with powerful themes such as grief, despair and isolation, all told through the eyes of young protagonist Conor. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a lonely boy troubled by nightmares of losing his terminally ill mother and struggling to cope with the likelihood that she will die. Ness’s thought-provoking screenplay succeeds in avoiding any light-hearted sentiment by showing how emotionally overwhelming Conor’s situation is, which certainly does not guarantee easy viewing. This is what makes the film so moving in how it examines the multi-layered depth of the human condition.
What makes it even more emotional is how the drama is complimented by the fairy tale elements, brought to life through incredible visual effects. The stories that the Monster tells Conor are told through striking animated segments, the use of watercolours making them really beautiful to admire. Crucially however, they do not get in the way of the story as they all possibly contribute as valuable lessons to help Conor cope with his grief. The Monster itself is a stunning and often ambiguous creature who is almost like a more hardened and fearsome Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Liam Neeson, who performed the Monster via motion capture, is perfectly cast in the role, his deep surly voice providing the right balance of warmth and fear that the character needs.
While Neeson is certainly a standout, the rest of the main cast all give extremely powerful performances. MacDougall especially is superb as Conor, a boy on the verge of adolescence unable to control his emotions against the predicament that he is enduring, and is enough to make him one of this year’s rising stars. He also shares some wonderful chemistry with Felicity Jones, who is utterly heart-breaking as his dying mother Lizzie. A very talented actress in modern cinema, Jones convincingly expresses Lizzie’s guilt and anguish as she tries to comfort her son despite the pain that she is suffering. The love between mother and son is overwhelmingly sad because of the subject matter and of how it underlines the film’s important message; one cannot really understand another person’s emotions until that person tells them exactly how they are feeling. For Conor and the audience, it takes a tough but rewarding journey to understand that message.