A Monster Calls, 2016.
Directed by J.A. Bayona.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin and the voice talents of Liam Neeson.
Life is miserable for young Conor (Lewis MacDougall). At school, he’s bullied and at home he’s trying to cope with his mother’s treatment for cancer – and the overwhelming fear she might die. He’s visited by a tree monster which, while initially menacing and destructive, starts to help him deal with his problems – and, in some instances, confront them.
Films that reduce a cinema full of film hacks to a mass of sniffling wrecks are so rare, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. But the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ much-loved A Monster Calls goes straight to the top of the list. With a recommendation to Kleenex to sign a sponsorship deal before the film goes on general release in the New Year.
Fundamentally, this is a film about facing problems and being honest about them. It’s hard enough for adults to deal with what life throws at them, but here the focus is a solitary eleven year old boy and how he faces potentially life changing events, deals with them and, just as importantly, his own feelings about them. Its message – and that of the tree monster (the voice of Liam Neeson) – is to tell the truth. That doesn’t mean being harsh or brutal, not does it mean being patronising, especially where children are concerned. It’s about being as honest as you can be with the child and giving them the freedom to be truthful with themselves – even if it’s a truth they can’t admit to because they believe it’s wrong.
Which is where Conor finds himself. The truth he dare not speak makes him hate himself, sparking a recurring nightmare and destructive behaviour – with some help from the monster. He expects to be punished – he actively wants it because he feels he’s deserved it – but it never happens. Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), long-distance Dad (Toby Kebbell) and headmistress (a cameo from Geraldine Chaplin) all realise he’s suffering because of his mother’s illness. They sum it up in the same way. “What’s the point?”
Fans of the original will know that, in the book the monster is The Green Man, a figure from English folklore. He doesn’t have a name in the film, but he does bear a staggering resemblance to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. Bigger, more articulate, a Granddaddy Groot even, but definitely Groot – with the added advantage of Neeson’s voice which comes from the very tips of his roots.
Fourteen year old Lewis MacDougall walks away with the acting honours as Conor, full of bottled up anger, guilt and sadness and cutting a poignantly solitary figure. Last seen in Joe Wright’s spectacularly ill-judged Pan, his remarkably mature performance puts him firmly in the spotlight. It’s another sensitive piece of acting from Felicity Jones as his mother and it’s only really Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother that strikes a slightly false note. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, but her accent is variable and the niggling thought that she’s on the cast list for box office purposes simply won’t go away.
Prepare yourself for an emotional rollercoaster. The outlook for young Conor doesn’t look great: the world he lives in, both in reality and inside his imagination, is gothic and cruel. But somewhere, perhaps in the Tree Monster’s glowing eyes, there’s glimmer of light and hope that he, and we, are constantly looking for.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★