Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, and Liam Neeson
Review By: Movie Parliament Prime Minister, Michael Dalton
Based on a book by Patrick Ness, who also writes the film, A Monster Calls in its own words is about, “a boy too old to be a kid but too young to be a man and a nightmare.” As Conor O’Malley struggles to deal with a terminally ill mother, an overbearing grandmother and school bullies, he is visited in the night by a walking, talking yew tree. This ‘monster’ says he will tell Conor three stories and then Conor must tell him a fourth, which will be the truth behind his recurring nightmare.
A Monster Calls is essentially a coming-of-age film, yet is one of the more fantastical entries into that genre. This is a film that has a fairy-tale aesthetic yet despite and in some ways because of that, doesn’t shy away from the sadness inherent within its story. This is a film about confronting death and the nightmares of a reality denied. However, it is a film that explores such ideas in the most cinematic of ways, and although you’ll leave needing to dry your eyes, you’ll also leave with a sense of hope.
J.A. Bayona is an incredibly underrated director and with A Monster Calls he further demonstrates why he is one of the best working today. His film, ‘The Impossible’ was a grueling cinematic experience, which had me on the edge of my seat and in tears throughout. He is fantastic at visualizing forces of nature, and giving his films a true sense of scope and scale.
The scene where the monster first comes to life and approaches Conor’s house is genuinely terrifying. The monster simultaneously shakes off the ground and is formed by it, with flashes of lightning lending the scene an operatic feel, as we see the monster’s silhouette across the walls of Conor’s house. It is an introduction that is equally horrific and awe-inspiring.
However, as well as making the film properly scary, Bayona’s direction gives the film a magical tone, particularly when the monster tells his three stories and we move into animation. These sequences are a wonder to watch, as illustrations come to life and scenes transition in the most inventive of ways. A particular highlight is the crawling of a spider morphing into the tapping of fingers.
Whilst such visual prowess on its own would be impressive enough, what makes the film such a triumph is the marriage of fantasy and reality. Down-to-earth scenes of conversation are where this film really soars, with Bayona having just as fine a grasp on his actors as he does his monsters. The monster is a wonderfully realized creation; with it feeling tangible despite its computer generated nature. However, it is Liam Neeson’s superb voice-work that imbues it with personality. Given a recent tragedy in his personal life, Neeson’s performance has an added layer of poignancy.
Meanwhile, having just seen Felicity Jones as an action-movie heroine in Rogue One, it is even more heartbreaking to see her character’s struggles here. However, it also shows her range as she is just as believable in both roles, despite their physical and emotional differences. Here she gives an incredibly moving performance, conveying so much in only a handful of scenes and it is perhaps her most effective work to date.
That being said, the real star of the film is Lewis MacDougall. In what is only his second film, MacDougall carries the film brilliantly, oftentimes having to act on his own and access a depth of emotion which would elude most performers. It is one of the best child performances we have seen in recent years. The film builds to a thrilling and emotionally draining climax, which whilst packed with incredible imagery is truly reliant on the strength of MacDougall’s acting. As Conor tells the fourth story and grapples with the truth behind his recurring nightmare, the film calms down and focuses on an effect more impressive than any other, the power of his performance.
In the film, Conor frequently escapes to a world of imagination through his drawings; following in his mother’s footsteps or rather paint brushes. In one particularly moving sequence, a flashback of Conor’s mother explaining how art can create life is juxtaposed with scenes of her getting progressively sicker. As well as being a film about grief and acceptance, A Monster Calls is also about how art can help us cope with, and understand, the world around us. Film is an extension of this and underlining A Monster Calls is an ode to the power of cinema and storytelling in general.
Whilst some may understandably think it is too intense and emotional for younger audiences, this is a film that has a lot to teach you whatever age you are. It never ducks the difficult questions, yet answers them amongst wondrous flights of fancy. A Monster Calls may be scary and it may be sad, but sometimes it is the things to go bump in the night, which can help us through the day…
Movie Parliament Rating: LANDSLIDE
By Movie Parliament Prime Minister,