Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson
Running time: 108 minutes
Beautifully crafted and delicately captured, J.A Bayona breathes cinematic life into Patrick Ness’ 2011 novel with A Monster Calls – an emotionally steered, visually elegant fable, that often suffers from trying that little bit too hard to wring those tears.
The film centres around young Conor O’Malley (the highly impressive MacDougall) – an introverted, bullied loner struggling to come to terms with his single mother’s terminal illness. Finding solace through his imaginative and artistic tendencies, Conor begins receiving nightly visits from a giant yew tree monster (Liam Neeson) who insists on telling him stories that will help him face the turbulence of his reality.
Hiding somewhere under the cinematic pedestal of celebrated animated classics occupied almost exclusively by Disney, is Warner Bros. 1999 criminally overlooked masterpiece, The Iron Giant. While they move in very different narrative directions, it’s easy to see where A Monster Calls’ roots firmly lie. Yes, the premise of Bayona’s film – a child learning to cope with the harsh realities of life through the arrival of an otherworldly being – is nothing new; however, where many films previously have looked to explore such themes as death, grievance and guilt through more allegorical and suggestive means, A Monster Calls approaches them head on. Amidst the fantasy elements, we witness quite plainly the tangible and emotional strain of Conor’s growing anger and vulnerability; we follow vividly the deterioration of Conor’s mother (Felicity Jones) as she battles with cancer; and we also see the pain of a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who knows her daughter is dying. It is a bold decision by Bayona that, for the most part, works in the film’s favour – it packs a sucker punch of real emotional realism and give the tales the monster tells (albeit predictably) a greater relevance and added poignancy. It also allows Bayona to really exemplify his wonderful visual filmmaking artistry as we move between watercolour, animation and real-life, knowing that no matter how experimental and how abstract we venture, he has already firmly established those connections to something very real. Yet, in Bayona’s transparency of subject matter, the film also struggles heavily to really place itself.
“Too old to be a kid, too young to be man” the monster states in reference to the young O’Malley; and this also appears indicative of the film more broadly and who exactly it is aimed at. Many of the younger audience members may fail to engage with the emotional weight the film throws about in its final third, whereas many older viewers might dismiss the drawn-out yarns and see past the superficially engineered emotional scenes. It’s a juggling act Bayona appears to struggle with, where at first, he looks to adopt a Let the Right One In approach of a world where adult presence is largely absent, while soon accepting that they are a crucial to the narrative he is trying to tell and the responses he is trying to induce.
Despite this, the cast are largely on fine form here. MacDougall quickly finds his feet and gives an intensely emotional performance which carries the film for the most part. In the limited time she is on screen, Felicity Jones brings subtle heartbreak and tragedy to a woman whose life is slowly seeping from her, whereas the casting of Sigourney Weaver – battling her American twang in a role where she adopts a British accent – feels a rather strange decision. The Monster – part Iron Giant, part BFG, part Treebeard and part Groot – is impeccably voiced by Neeson, who brings simultaneous fear and warmth in his deep, bellowing tones.
An unquestionably cathartic experience, A Monster Calls hits all the right emotional chords a little too loudly; and while Bayona demonstrates his visual prowess, there is always the feeling that this is all just stylishly disguised manipulation.