Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay), Patrick Ness (based upon the novel written by)
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones
A rare dark fantasy drama which gives a huge amount of credit to its intended young audience with its bleak subject matter and brooding overtones. An beautifully illustrated allegory of torment, heartache and acceptance.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives a complicated life filled with school bullies, his estranged father (Kebbell), a stern grandmother (Weaver) and his loving mother( Jones) who is battling cancer. One ordinary night, at 12.07, his world is ripped apart by a tree Monster who crashes into his life to tell him he will tell him three stories over the next few nights and, at the end of the third story, Conor must reciprocate by telling the Monster his story – the truth behind his nightmares.
On the night of the first story (again at 12.07) the Monster tells Conor a fable of an old King who married a beautiful young woman who the Royal subjects believe, upon the King’s death, poisoned him to take the throne for herself and stop the King’s grandson Prince from ruling. The Prince and a young farm girl run away together and fall asleep under an old yew tree (the Monster). When the Prince awakes he finds his love murdered and tells the people that it must have been the new Queen who killed his beloved and that she’s a witch. He rallies the townsfolk to overthrow the Queen and the Monster joins the mob but, instead of killing the Queen, he rescues her and takes her to a faraway place to live her life in peace. Conor is furious that the Monster would rescue such an evil murderess and demands to know why he would save her. The Monster then tells him that she didn’t murder the King, that it he simply died of old age and it was the Prince who killed the farm girl to incite hatred for the Queen, thus ensuring his succession to the throne. Conor is confused as to what point the Monster is trying to make.
Conor’s seemingly cold and unkind Grandma wants to take Conor away from his mum to live with her, a scenario which the strong-willed Conor will do anything to avoid. Not that this affects Conor, of course. Conor’s mother is not getting better. In fact, she’s becoming sicker and she’s not responding to new treatments. Against Conor’s wishes, he is moved to his Grandma’s house to stay for a few days. His father, who lives in L.A. with his second wife and Conor’s half sister, returns to help his son through this demanding time in the boy’s life. When Conor challenges his dad as to why he can’t come to live with him and his new family in L.A., he gets a less than satisfactory response. Money is tight, there isn’t enough room, Conor shouldn’t be uprooted from his friends and family etc. And Conor, as usual, stoically takes it on the chin.
The Monster visits on the second night and continues with his promise of a second story. An apothecary, he tells Conor, spends his time curing and ailing the sick with his old-fashioned remedies made from herbs and flowers. He also covets a yew tree to use in his potions, which is on private ground. A local parson denounces the old healer’s medicines and encourages his followers to reject the archaic brews and potions, but not before his two young daughters become sick. The parson begs the apothecary to help cure his daughters, after all other avenues have been explored. The healer, bitter that his business has been driven away, initially rejects to parson’s pleas until he is promised the old yew tree, the most prized of all healing ingredients, to use in his future concoctions and also deliver his parishioners as customers. Even with this promise the apothecary says he can’t help and the two young girls die. The tree awakes and destroys the parson’s house as punishment for denying the apothecary’s way of life yet turning to him for help in his time of need and abandoning his own beliefs in the process. The apothecary, while greedy in his practices, knew that without the parson’s belief in either way of life the
medicine wouldn’t have worked. Belief is half the cure, the Monster tells Conor. An increasingly frustrated Conor is becoming tired with these increasingly tedious and pointless stories.
While the Monster is visiting Conor, he encourages the boy to embrace his anger and, in doing so, Conor wrecks his Grandma’s front room and her cherished family heirloom, a grandfather clock. When she returns to witness the devastation, she silently surveys the room is shock. A visibly distraught Conor follows his Grandma out the room to discover she’s retreated to her daughter’s old bedroom, crying. It’s here we witness Conor’s realisation that the recent events are having an effect on everyone, not just him. He is beginning to see his mother as his Grandma’s daughter and, through a subsequent conversation with his father, someone who had dreams of going to art college, someone who was once loved by a man and that life doesn’t always work out in a way that results in happy-ever-after.
From here we see the rest of the story evolve in such a poignant way. Conor continues to be bullied. He continues to act out. He continues to learn that his mother, father and Grandma don’t have the answers to impossible questions. And the Monster returns with his third and final story. Above all we see Conor learn that life is messy.
A Monster Calls isn’t the Iron Giant, Baymax from Big Hero 6 or the terminator in T2. This isn’t a story about an inanimate object or lifeless robot that’s transformed into a seemingly sentient being to help out a kid going through a tough time in his life. The Monster is an allegory and the riddle-like stories he tells are about tough choices in an interminable situation. He isn’t an emotionless substitute for a teddy bear. The Monster is a very clever plot device used to convey the confusion, fear and rage felt in the hopelessness of misery and heartache.
Liam Neeson channels his Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, but without the sentimentality. His rich, almost alarming, voice lends itself perfectly to the role of the tree that comes to life to act as a guide to a young boy embarking on a horrible journey. The CGI itself is rather petrifying and petrified, and inspires the overall tone of the film. He’s less Groot, more a terrifying, haunted Halloween tree that owls usually perch upon while witches screech past.
Lewis MacDougall’s performance is simply beautiful. His ability to convey hostility, irritation and anger and, then seamlessly, break your heart with the deftest of expression is wondrous. He seems to conduct every one of Conor’s emotions like a beacon and express them flawlessly at will with no effort. It would be criminal to express admiration for his abilities and mention his young age, as if one had to do with the other. He’s not talented despite his age. He’s just extremely talented and it will be interesting to see what he can do in the future.
Felicity Jones has shown her ability to play strong women. Here, we get a glimpse of her portraying someone who shows a different kind of strength, avoiding self-pity and still teaching her son invaluable lessons.
Toby Kebbell is lovely as the dad who doesn’t always know how to get it right. Kebbell delivers a solid performance as someone who really tries his best for his boy.
Sigourney Weaver is amazing. While her quintessentially generic English accent may be a tad questionable here, her performance is not. She excels as the seemingly impenetrable grandmother but, in actual fact, just has an impossible time trying to remain strong for her daughter and grandson while
reflecting on everything she has to lose. Weaver delights as the woman who struggles with the responsibility of stoicism.
J.A. Bayona gives us a tremendous film, written by (as based on the book of) the excellent Patrick Ness. Bayona conveys a sense of hope, almost misleadingly, through a film with such dark subject matter for its intended audience. But he pulls it off entirely, giving us an entertaining and endearing film that’s a pleasure to watch. Jurassic World 2 will be interesting.
A Monster Calls delivers where other films may have bailed and gave us the happiness and closure we crave. It’s extremely dark but also incredibly moving and funny in its own little awkward way. The movie is an allegory for grief, but there’s also an argument to say it’s a parable for adolescence itself. It’s confusing, painful, awkward but has a great amount of joy as well. It’s a hugely enjoyable movie and thrives because it doesn’t trivialise its content.