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Based on an award-winning novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is a beautifully tragic drama that works as a piece of magical realism and, being a grounded tale, makes it one of the best young adult novel adaptations around.
Conor O’Mallery (Lewis MacDougall) is a 12-year-old boy who is caring for his sick mother (Felicity Jones). He is trying to fend off his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who wants to take Conor away from his home, his father (Toby Kebbell) is absent and he is being picked on by a sadistic bully (James Melville). Conor is also being visited by a tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson every night at 12:07 and says he will tell the boy three stories and demands Conor tells him a story in return.
The idea for A Monster Calls was originally created by Siobhan Dowd and was completed by Ness after her death. Ness was heavily involved with the adaptation: he refused to sell the film rights until he met the right filmmaker, resulting in him writing the screenplay and working with acclaimed Spanish filmmaker J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible). Bayona was a wise choice to handle this story – his previous films have focused on themes of grief and people overcoming extraordinary circumstances. The Impossible was a realistic disaster movie, while The Orphanage was a low-key supernatural thriller about a woman whose young child disappears. These movies were a good bedding for A Monster Calls and, due to A Monster Calls requiring more special effects, it gives us a taste of what he can do with his next project: the Jurassic World sequel.
Bayona gives A Monster Calls a downbeat look, more akin to a kitchen sink drama. It was more like the Ken Loach classic Kes: both focus on boys who are small for their age and are lonely outsiders, both children are picked on and they have troubled home lives. Like Kes, A Monster Call is set in a small English town and Bayona deliberately gives the film an old-fashioned look – Conor’s home has decor that comes from the ’60s despite some of the modern appliances – Conor’s sweaters (jumpers in the UK) also look like they come from the ’60s and his grandmother’s house is an old lady’s home, filled with delicate ornaments and antiques. A Monster Calls also has some similarities to the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In -following boys from less privileged backgrounds and tough home and school lives. However, the main character in Let the Right One In was on route to becoming a serial killer, playing with knives and fantasizing about violence; Conor’s reaction to his home situation is to become quieter, more withdrawn and only lashes out when he’s alone. It is harrowingly realistic.
The Monster of the story is a figment of Conor’s imagination – this is set out early on and it is not a cheat like some other marketing campaigns i.e. 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia. The Monster is a coping mechanism for the torment in his life. The stories The Monster tells are meant to be metaphorical to Conor about his life and show that life is not black-and-white and that the world can be cruel – even to young boys. The stories the monster tells are fairy tales and had a wonderful watercolor style, emulating the art style in the book. It is colorful and distinctive as it shows the town in a fantasy medieval period and the early industrial age. As the stories progress, Conor’s fantasies and the real world slowly converge.
Liam Neeson was perfectly cast as The Monster – his deep voice being able to project dread and warmth in equal measure. He was Aslan after all. The design of the Monster was also unique – covered in knots and branches and when angered his eyes glowed like fire. He was an excellent piece of special effects – having some similarities to the Ents from Lord of the Rings and, due to the small town English setting, and the deep noises, he makes A Monster Calls has a slight air of the classic children’s book The Iron Giant. Composer Fernando Velázquez enhanced scenes featuring The Monster with a deep, booming soundtrack, a perfect fit for his voice and heavy movements.
Due to the movie’s domestic storyline, A Monster Calls was dependent on the quality of its acting. Fortunately, Bayona knows how to get the best of out of young actors and newcomer Lewis MacDougall shows all the pain and anger Conor is going through. The domestic story works because the audience only sees it through Conor’s eyes – he is shut out of conversations involving his mum and kept away from her when she’s in the hospital. His world is one of distant adults and closed doors. He is fighting a losing battle as he is taken away from his home – unable to see his mother and essentially hoping against hope. Bayona’s previous movie, The Impossible was a big expansive look at the 2004 Tsunami yet he showed he was able to adapt to a smaller story.
The casting of Sigourney Weaver seems to be a way to ensure funding from American investors. She pulls off a decent English accent and had a tough role of being Conor’s villain – having to be the enforcer and both characters share animosity to each other. Yet she is emotionally overwhelmed herself, having to see her daughter getting sicker by the day, deal with a wayward child and has to stay strong for the sake of the family. It’s only when she’s alone that she’s allowed to cry and grieve.
Kebbel and Jones as the parents also have tender moments with Conor. His father and maternal grandmother put aside their differences for Conor’s sake and the father does have to give his son some important life lessons. Conor is given a brief moment of joy when he’s with his father. The mother clearly loves Conor but is unable to do anything as she gets weaker. The make-up team does an excellent job at making Jones look sicker as the movie progresses: her skin becoming paler and her lips crack. Bayona does not shy away from the reality of these types of situations and the most-hard hitting is when Conor gets a glimpse of his mum who has become incredibly thin in her hospital room.
A Monster Calls is a weepy film and I have to admit that my eyes were watering near the end of the movie. Bayona is an emotional manipulator and brought out the desired reaction from the audience: there were a lot of people sniffling at the end of my screening. A Monster Calls was a beautiful, tender and sad movie that was able to combine spectacular special effects with a heart-wrenching story.