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A Monster Calls tells the story of Connor, a 13-year-old boy whose life is, to put it mildly, falling apart. The bullying and friendlessness he endures at school is one thing; dealing with his mum’s terminal cancer is quite another. Then, one night, a monster which takes the form of a sentient tree visits Connor and promises to tell him three stories, through which Connor gains strength and understanding of himself and those around him. Emotionally engaging and visually fantastic, this is a a worthy adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, based on the original idea left behind by Siobhan Dowd upon her death in 2007.
The first challenge facing A Monster Calls was the prospect of casting a child actor in the leading role. This is a risky strategy at the best of times, but Lewis MacDougall does an excellent job, considering that the subject matter involved is heavy enough to challenge even the most seasoned of actors. There are some moments where his inexperience shows, but in the grand scheme of child acting performances this certainly falls much closer to the Hayley Joel Osment pinnacle than the Jake Lloyd nadir. I found out in writing this review that MacDougall lost his own mother to multiple sclerosis three years ago, so the emotions he exhibits here are not unfamiliar to him. The greatest compliment I can pay him is that he doesn’t get lost even amid an array of accomplished performances from older actors. Sigourney Weaver plays Connor’s overbearing but fragile grandmother, whose main character motivation initially seems to be her love of antique furniture but has more dimensions than you think. Many of the film’s heaviest moments rely on the performance of Felicity Jones as Connor’s ill mother, but she’s on top form here just as she was in Rogue One. And as for Liam Neeson as the voice of the monster – well, once you’ve heard it, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role.
The tree’s stories are a visual and narrative treat for the audience, with each accompanied by some delightful illustrations which are fairly faithful to the visuals of the source material. Connor claims only to be listening out of obligation but quickly becomes invested, and irritated at the perceived injustices of the tales. But each seems to draw parallels with Connor’s life. In the first story a young prince murders his bride for political gain but refuses to believe that it was he who did it – just as Connor refuses to accept his mother’s fate. The second story of a likeable but convictionless parson seems curiously similar to Connor’s absent father, who left for America instead of face his mistakes at home. But these stories are intentionally ambiguous, that’s just my two cents. Something would definitely have been lost if these stories had been explicitly explained.
After these luridly detailed stories, the third is a bit disappointing – there are no illustrations and it basically boils down to ‘go punch your school bully into the back end of the next week’, which makes for very satisfying viewing but doesn’t teach Connor any important lessons. Also, I can only assume director J.A. Bayona was never bullied at school because he seems to have no idea how bullies speak, act or look. What sort of school bully has his top button done up?! I’ll believe in talking trees before I believe that. I’m being petty, but on a more serious note I think the film might work even better without the bully. You don’t need an antagonist in a film like this; the situations are enough to create the drama by themselves. But then again, that punching scene is tremendously gratifying.
Fair warning: this film will probably make you cry. At what point you start crying will depend on how susceptible you are to the subject matter. The audience and Connor both see the ending coming but refuse to accept it until it does. I felt curiously unmoved for large parts of the film, but that’s probably because I am the real monster. Like Connor himself, I stayed strong until the very final scenes, when it got too much for our protagonist, for me, and for pretty much everyone in the cinema. I won’t say that A Monster Calls isn’t for kids, because plenty of it is fantastical, imaginative and ideal for children. But it’s heavy, emotionally intense, and a lot of the messages rely on life experiences that children probably can’t relate to yet. But everyone should see it at some point. There’s a lot to admire here, from the visuals to the performances to the themes. 2017, the benchmark is set.
A Monster Calls is showing at the Dukes until Thursday Week 12.