The year 2016 closed on a tidal wave of tears, shed during such heart-shattering movies as Moonlight, Lion, Manchester By the Sea andLoving. It’s a brand new year, but the waterworks aren’t done yet. The British drama A Monster Calls has all the ingredients to produce yet another sob-fest, revolving as it does around a sensitive, bullied boy who must come to terms with his mother’s cancer diagnosis.
The relationship between mothers and sons in extreme situations proved fertile ground for director J A Bayona in his first two feature films, The Orphanage and The Impossible. So who better for production company Focus Features to hire, when it bought the rights to Patrick Ness’s acclaimed 2011 children’s novel, A Monster Calls, than the talented Spaniard?
Based on an idea conceived by author Siobhan Dowd as she was battling terminal cancer, elegantly illustrated by Jim Kay, and shot through with wisdom and compassion, the book always seemed like a perfect fit for cinema. However, bringing it to the screen requires a filmmaker capable of making its blend of fantasy and everyday reality function as a cohesive and coherent whole – Bayona, working from a warm, insightful script by Ness, proves more than equal to the task.
Twelve-year-old Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is particularly close with his mom (Felicity Jones). Both are free-spirited and artistically inclined, and Conor’s dad is no longer in the picture, having fled the scene many years earlier for America. Mum, as she’s called, takes a cocktail of drugs that has worked for a while, but that’s starting to change. She looks more wan by the day, and getting out of bed has become a major undertaking. So Conor is forced to move in with his formidable grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, with a distractingly inconsistent British accent). Grandma lives in what looks like a museum, and instructs Conor not to touch a thing.
At once intimate and spectacular, claustrophobic and expansive, A Monster Calls centres on a heart-wrenching performance by Scottish newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley – a bullied 12-year-old struggling to cope with the fear that he will soon lose his mother (Felicity Jones) to cancer.
Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) and adapted by writer Patrick Ness from his 2011 novel, the whole endeavor runs a high risk of drowning in melodrama. But the movie avoids that pitfall, because nothing about the story or characters is easy or straightforward. Conor is certainly worthy of our pity, but he also can be a brat. He’s not one of those insufferably precocious and angelic whippersnappers that exist only on the big screen. The character has some anger management issues – understandably.
Plagued by a frightening recurring nightmare, and unable to find solace in the company of his imperious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), he retreats into fantasy. One night, the yew tree in the cemetery atop a nearby hill rises from the Earth in a blizzard of sparks, strides down the hill and snatches Conor from his bedroom. A figure of seeming menace, the “monster” has, in fact, come to help the boy, and over several nights, tells him – in Liam Neeson’s sonorous, playful delivery – stories intended to help him make sense of his unarticulated feelings of confusion, anger, hurt, shame and guilt. The stories – portrayed as beautifully animated tales inspired by Kay’s illustrations – burst with colours that contrast with the muted palette of the chilly north of England setting of the live-action scenes, which looks like it is already in mourning. Pain bubbles through all the performances, and the tears that are guaranteed to flow during the heartbreaking denouement feel – despite a slightly manipulative score – honestly earned.
There is catharsis, but also the acknowledgement throughout the film that life is messy, that humans are paradoxical and conflicted creatures, that happy endings are never guaranteed, that it is unhealthy to suppress one’s pain, and that there are no quick-fixes for grief. This is a true must-see for adults and older children alike.
Meanwhile, the morals of the monster’s stories aren’t easy for a kid to parse. Aesop’s fables they are not. In one tale, a witch turns out to be harmless, but she’s exiled anyway. An evil prince becomes a king in another, enjoying a long, successful reign. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, the boy realizes. And sometimes unlikable people do good.
The movie is memorable for its stunning and inventive imagery, especially when the tree-monster’s tales spring to life as little works of art set in motion. Those tales provide a beautiful respite from the grim reality of Conor’s life, both for him and for the audience. But that respite won’t last forever, and our hero eventually will have to face his emotions and learn to channel them properly. Viewers don’t have to be nearly so stoic: They can just let the tears flow.
- A Monster Callsis in cinemas on Thursday, January 12