A Monster Calls (2016)

JA Bayona’s magical fantasy A Monster Calls tugs at adult heartstrings.

Yew and Me

by Alexa Dalby

A Monster Calls

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A Monster Calls is a magical, heartbreaking adaptation of the young adult novel of the same title by Patrick Ness. An emotionally affecting dark fantasy, it’s like a Disney noir primer for dealing with the complex emotions of grief.

Twelve-year-old Connor (an astonishingly mature performance from Edinburgh-born Lewis MacDougall in his second film after Pan and will be seen next in Shana Feste’s Boundaries) wakes at 12.06 every night with the same nightmare – the church and graveyard he overlooks from his bedroom window are crumbling, the earth is cracking and he is holding onto the hand of an unseen person to save them from falling into the abyss. He’s being bullied at school and his beloved mother (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything, in a perfect, sensitive performance) is obviously weak from an illness that is yet to be explained. His father (Toby Kebbell, Black Mirror) is absent and he and his controlling grandmother (Sigourney Weaver with a wobbly English accent) have a hostile relationship.

One night, the yew tree by the church uproots itself and becomes a walking monster bigger than Conor’s house. Its apparition has been prefigured by the vintage black and white King Kong movie that Lizzie plays on the old projector she finds. It says it has come for him and takes him in its tendrilly hand as King Kong scoops up Fay Wray. The monster is voiced by a gravelly Liam Neeson. At first it’s terrifying but it becomes kindly as we find out its motive is to help Conor. The terrifying monster, whose woody skeleton has an internal fiery glow, says it will tell Conor three stories, then Conor will have to tell the fourth, and it must be the truth about his nightmare.

The first two are illustrated by beautifully drawn watercolour animations. They seem like fairy stories – a king, queen, prince, an apothecary, a healing yew tree – but they have a moral that’s intended to help Conor understand the complexity of being human and how that relates to the situation he’s in. He’s trying to deal with the fact that he’s about to lose the most important person in his world. As the film develops, it becomes clearer that his mother is dying with terminal cancer and, despite her brave attempts to reassure him, her treatments aren’t working. His father returns briefly from America, where he is living now with his new family, Conor smashes up his grandmother’s house and he hospitalises his bully. The monster that he summons up every night is the only person he can talk to. Through the power of story, it enables Conor to be brave enough to confront the painful truth that his mother is dying.

Spanish director JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) seamlessly weaves fantasy and reality, using the same Spanish creative team as Pan’s Labyrinth and it has a Guillermo Del Toro feel. His use of silence at times is as atmospheric as sound. He is set to direct the next instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise. The award-winning book’s author Patrick Ness wrote the successful screenplay himself. There’s a particularly well-written and well-acted scene between Mum and Conor in her hospital room. The novel’s original idea came from children’s author Siobhan Dowd. It’s a wonderful and spectacular film, shot from a child’s point of view, though it is maybe too dark for children.

A Monster Calls premiered at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 1 January 2017 in the UK.

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