A MONSTER CALLS (Spain | USA | UK | Canada/12A/108mins)
Directed by JA Bayona. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell
THE PLOT: As 12 year old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) struggles to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness, a Monster (Liam Neeson) comes to call on him; “I have come to get you Conor O’Malley”. Although the monster is massive and intimidating, Conor refuses to be frightened, and as the Monster tells him three fables, Conor struggles with the knowledge that the Monster wants Conor to tell him the truth behind his recurring nightmare.
THE VERDICT: Based on the beloved and heartbreaking book by Patrick Ness, ‘A Monster Calls’ is a beautiful, heart rending and haunting tale of a young boy trying to come to terms with something that feels too big to fit into his world. Ness adapted the screenplay from his own novel, which in turn began life as an idea by writer Siobhan Dowd, who never got to finish her work as she died from cancer before she got started.
Lewis MacDougall leads the cast as Conor O’Malley, the young boy on whom the Monster calls. MacDougall is perfectly cast as the bewildered and raging pre-teenager, who desperately wants to understand just what is happening to his world. Filled with rage and desperate sadness, MacDougall ably carries the film, and makes Conor an everyman when it comes to grief and anger at the world; a character that audiences can utterly relate to. Felicity Jones plays Lizzy, Conor’s mother, and she makes the character warm but frail, as she tries to out a brave face on inevitability. Sigourney Weaver has a smaller role as Lizzy’s mother and Toby Kebbel plays Conor’s absentee father. Liam Neeson rounds out the cast as the voice of the titular Monster, bringing the character to life with all of his ferociousness, gentleness and wisdom.
Patrick Ness adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and does well in bringing the tale to the big screen. There are times when the film feels as though it is waiting for the Monster to return – as he does, time and again – as the structure of the story is built around the tales that he tells young Conor. This does not detract from the film as such, but it is noticeable that it does not follow the traditional structure of a feature film. Ness carefully treads the line between despair and rage, bringing the audience into the world with Conor, and allowing us to see how such a young kid deals with the biggest change he will ever experience. Isolation plays a huge part in the film, but it is carefully done in order to show the ways in which kids deal with problems too big for them to comprehend.
Director J.A. Bayona broke hearts with ‘The Impossible’ and scared audiences around the world with ‘The Orphanage’, so he is strong in the director’s chair for ‘A Monster Calls’. Bayona blends fear and anger, horror and mundanity throughout the film, while coaxing a wonderful performance from MacDougall, and making the world he lives in feel both fantastic and utterly normal. The pacing of the film dips slightly when the Monster is not on screen, but the animated sequences throughout the film are so beautiful, and the chemistry between the cast is so strong that it is easy for the film to claw this back when it needs to.
In all, ‘A Monster Calls’ is heart wrenching, haunting and filled with hope, and tells the most horribly mundane story in a simple, relatable and fantastic manner. Heart strings get tugged without the film ever feeling manipulative or overly sweet, and although there is horror at the film’s heart, that is where the spark of hope also lies, making ‘A Monster Calls’ a beautiful and special piece of work.
RATING: 5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    2017 begins promisingly with A Monster Calls, a poignant story about a son’s love for his ailing mother, shot through with a sense of the fantastical. But it’s very much a story rooted in reality – its single greatest strength.

    Young Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a hard time with his life right now. He’s being bullied in school for being quiet and reserved. There’s a valid reason for this – his kind Mum (Felicity Jones) is slowly but surely slipping away due to a terminal illness that is sucking the life right out of her. Conor is finding this hard to accept, since she’s his whole world. His Dad (Toby Kebbell) is more occupied with new family in Los Angeles. Conor therefore has to live with Grandma (Sigourney Weaver), who he can’t live with and lashes out at her. One night, he’s visited by a most unexpected guest: a huge tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that only he can see. It challenges him to listen to three stories. Conor must tell the fourth – his own sad story…

    A Monster Calls is based on a concept by the late Siobhan Dowd, who was herself dealing with terminal illness. The script is adapted by Patrick Ness from his novel based on her concept. It’s a very unusual film in that it effortlessly crosses the divide between being a film for (mature) children and for adults. There’s a richness of material here that will speak to different people in different ways. This reviewer saw it as an allegory for the pain of mortality, growing up and accepting that loss is part of everyday life – viewed through the perspective of a boy who could be any of us really.

    There have been other films that have balanced out the fantastical with the realistic, like Sucker Punch or MirrorMask – with mixed results. Few have done it so skillfully like A Monster Calls. That’s partly down to Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona, who made quite an impression with The Orphanage and the frighteningly realistic The Impossible. His direction is so subtle that he’s able seamlessly move in and out of fantastical scenes without any clunkiness along the way. Everything just fits together so well here, including some gorgeously-rendered, striking animation. The performances are top-notch too, with newcomer MacDougall having most of the emotional heavy-lifting to do. Neeson’s voice work is deep and rumbling, distinguishing his creature from the more obvious likes of Treebeard and Groot.

    A Monster Calls is a film of delicate balance which has been correctly judged by Bayona and his cast and crew. There’s a bittersweet element to the story, but it’s also a story of hope, acceptance and the power of a child’s love for his mother. A very fine film indeed that will both surprise and move you. ****

  • Clive Bower

    As filmbuff2011 this is indeed a very good start to 2017
    Cracking film from start to finish brilliantly told , happy, sad it has it all.
    It was a choice between this and Rogue One, glad we chose this really good , two thumbs up ….