UK Release Date: 1st January 2017
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell, James Melville
Synopsis: A young boy dealing with a gravely ill mother and bullies at school is visited by an ancient, talking tree who has a number of lessons to teach him that will help him to improve his life.
Films that deal with grief are really tough to get right and films that deal with grief aimed at a family audience are damn near impossible to make. Step forward, Juan Antonio Bayona with the utterly wonderful A Monster Calls. The director of the heart-wrenching tsunami drama The Impossible has again returned to difficult material with this film, which tells a tough story of illness, coming of age and a gigantic talking tree. Lurking in the very first week of the year, I think 2017 has its first genuinely great movie.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) struggles with bullies at school and in many ways has to fend for himself as his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill and his father (Toby Kebbell) has moved to America. Facing an impending future in the care of his uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor becomes angry and upset. He is visited one night by a living yew tree (Liam Neeson), who offers to tell Conor three stories that may give him the tools he needs to deal with what life is throwing at him.
A Monster Calls is a movie of the most profound kind. It’s a deeply sophisticated tale that understands the complexity of a young person too old to be a child and too young to be a man. Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel, delivers a script that is rich with emotion that never goes for the easy tear-jerking body blows, instead allowing the grip of grief to slowly twist into action. It’s an unashamedly family movie, but one that trusts its audience to go along with the complicated emotions of its central character.
That creative decision leaves considerable weight on the shoulders of unproven young star Lewis MacDougall, who only recently made his big screen debut in Pan. His charm is reminiscent of David Bradley in Kes and he has remarkable range for a young man. Whether it’s crying in anguish or subtly allowing the weight of his circumstances to affect his body, MacDougall’s performance is one of real complexity that is mature beyond his years. He carries the entire film shoulder high and is never upstaged, even by big-budget spectacle and an enormous talking tree.
Neeson’s character is hugely interesting as well, stepping away from the notion of a traditional fantasy mentor to be something far darker. A Monster Calls is a film about shades of grey and nowhere is this clearer than in Neeson’s character, who refuses to offer clear advice and instead deals in twisted fairytales in which traditional notions of heroes and villains are muddied and often completely inverted. The role of his character is to introduce MacDougall to a world that is seldom fair and rarely makes sense, delivering reality rather than a sugar-coated reassurance that everything will be okay. That’s a brave route for a kids’ fantasy movie, but Bayona, Ness and the cast are more than equal to that challenge.
With A Monster Calls, Bayona has once again delivered a film that marries the personal with the spectacular to great effect. This is a film of unique visual invention, with the story set in an almost Gothic interpretation of modern Britain that reminded me in many ways of the house in The Babadook, which felt materially darkened and weighed down by the impact of loss. The appearance of the tree feels physical and muscular and the storytelling sequences have a delightful old-fashioned animated feel. This is a film that spins a lot of plates, but never loses sight of the intensely emotional heart of its narrative. That’s where the real impact resides.
Pop or Poop?
Anyone with a heart will find themselves in floods of tears at the climax of A Monster Calls, but this is not a film that deals in crass emotion. Screenwriter Patrick Ness and director Bayona have put together a film that has mastery of its tone and feels refreshingly real as well as fearlessly fantastical when necessary.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.