Patrick Ness wrote ‘A Monster Calls’ in 2011 based on an ‘original idea by Siobhan Dowd’ a fellow children’s author who had died of breast cancer before she could write the book. Ness then created a novel that is so deceptively devastating that it haunts the reader after reading. The beauty of the novel is the compassionate yet understated tone the emotion and events are told by along with how profoundly sad the story is.
13 year-old Connor O’Malley (MacDougall) wakes once more from the recurring nightmare that has been haunting him for months. A 12.07 a voice calls to him from outside. Connor walks to the window and is created by a monster (voiced by Neeson) that appears to be a tree in human form. The monster doesn’t scare Connor as reality as of late has become scary enough, his mother (Jones) is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and his detached grandmother (Weaver) just won’t leave him alone. The monster promises Connor that he will return and tell Connor three stories. In return Connor must tell the Monster his ‘truth’ – something which Connor cannot even bring to think about.
The film is a very successful adaptation of its source material. Having Ness himself write the screenplay is a crucial factor for this as it allows the words soar from the page onto the screen. In many ways it feels like a companion piece to Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ as both films use magical realism to explore true emotion. Both films follow a young protagonist on the cusp of adolescence as they are going through the very worst experience of their lives – experiences we pray will never happen to us or those we love. The fact that director J.A Bayona also directed ‘The Orphanage’, the executive producer of which was Del Toro himself, strengthens these parallels.
What really drives both of these films is the strength of the performances of the young leading roles. MacDougall is utterly brilliant as Connor, truly believable in his representation of Connor’s inner turmoil and conflict. He manages to showcase light and shade brilliantly showcasing the true depth of the prolonged grief Connor is experiencing, his inner rage is at once sensitive, brutal and heartbreakingly sincere. The range of his untamed emotion as Connor desperately unravels showcases his potential as an actor and provides him with the status of ‘one-to-watch’.
The other standout factor of the film is the special effects. They are truly magical. The Monster, for fans of the book, is just how you imagined/hoped/prayed. After watching the film it will be impossible to separate Liam’s husky bark when reading the book. It’s a performance that will add him to the (admittedly rather small pantheon) of tree performances, alongside Vin Diesel as Groot in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and Fangorn in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The animation of the Monster’s tales is astonishing, possessing a depth in colour and detail that quite literally takes your breath away thanks their beauty.
If only the story could retain that magic for the entirety of its running time. It races through its first act, meanders through its second only to find its stride in the third act. As elegant and emotional as the film is in its exploration of grief it’s unclear quite who its audience will be. The film is unquestionably moving, understated it doesn’t quite feel like a film for kids or adults. It roars a message that is heartfelt and moving – but who will be there to listen to it?
Dir: J.A. Bayona
Scr: Patrick Ness
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson
Prd: Belén Atienza, Mitch Horwits, Jonathan King
DOP: Oscar Faura
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Country: United Kingdom/United States/ Spain
Run time: 108 minutes
A Monster Calls is in UK cinemas 6th January 2017