A Monster Calls, 2016.
Directed by J.A. Bayona.
Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson.
A young boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness is visited by a talking yew tree that tells him stories.
With his first two films (The Orphanage and The Impossible) director J.A. Bayona proved himself adept at tackling emotional material that didn’t shy away from harsh realities and dark situations, and his third feature continues that trend. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy with a young mum (Felicity Jones) who is battling terminal cancer and running out of treatment options, a situation not made easier by an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and a group of boys who are bullying him at school. Then one night he is visited in a dream by a walking, talking yew tree that says he will tell Conor three stories, after which Conor will tell him a fourth – his recurring nightmare, and the ‘truth’ behind it. Films that flip between real and fantasy worlds require a great amount of care in getting the balance right, and apart from a couple of moments where laughs follow scares a little too quickly, Bayona achieves this. As well as being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a fable about the power of stories themselves, and how they can influence and shape the way we see (and cope with) the world.
Together with his usual collaborators, Bayona has crafted an exceptionally handsome film – Oscar Faura’s cinematography is a gorgeous blend of lamp-lit interiors and grey, windswept skies, Fernando Velázquez’s music is just as delicately powerful as his score for The Orphanage, and the Monster itself is a triumph of CGI (not that it hurts having Liam Neeson distinctive growl to base it on). The first two stories the Monster tells are spectacular animated sequences, which reminded me of the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ sequence from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part I, only in vibrant watercolours. Felicity Jones does a good job keeping Lizzie, Conor’s mother, on the right side of saint-like, and barring a couple of awkward lines of dialogue, Liam MacDougall’s performance as Conor O’Malley (the Monster says his full name so many times you’ll have no excuse to forget it) is wonderfully naturalistic. He effectively captures the frustration, loneliness and pain of a child struggling with lessons and feelings he doesn’t quite understand, and in the scene near the end when he confesses the ‘truth’ that most summoned the Monster in the first place, he is truly brilliant.
As far as the cast goes, the weak link, sadly, is Sigourney Weaver – her English accent is decent, but you never quite forget it’s not her natural one, and I couldn’t help thinking the only reason she got the part over someone like Penelope Winton is because she’s an international star and would therefore be more likely to draw bigger audiences worldwide. Her character’s sternness is also painted too broadly at the beginning (“Don’t touch anything!” “If you’re hungry, there’s spinach you can steam!”) although she does soften and become more sympathetic by the end. Toby Kebbell is likeable as Conor’s estranged father, but it would have been good if screenwriter Patrick Ness had been able to give him more purpose in the story, apart from just being another person for Conor to vent his anger to. There are moments where the morals of the Monster’s stories are spelled out a little too literally (the poetic explanation Conor’s bully gives for backing off him, for example, rang particularly false) and it’s hinted at in the final scene that the Monster had its origins in Lizzie’s paintings rather than Conor’s imagination, which doesn’t detract from the film’s impact but I personally didn’t think it was necessary.
The overall pace of the film is quite slow, and there are a couple of scenes that feel like repeats of previous ones (another run-in with the bullies, another day out with dad) but the audience’s patience is rewarded with a third act that, while predictable, is still incredibly emotional. I can appreciate this must have been a difficult film to pitch – the tone seems to be somewhere between a children’s film and an adult drama that just happens to focus on a child, but perhaps that’s the point (as the Monster himself declares in the opening narration, this is a story about a boy who is not a child but not yet a man). For children who are at the age where mortality is starting to become as graspable concept, I can see this film having an especially big impact. Everyone else can enjoy it purely as a well-made fantasy drama, with superb effects, solid performances, and one of the most moving mother-son relationships since The Sixth Sense.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★