“Stories are wild creatures… When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak,” the Monster says in the film adaptation of Patrick Ness’s award-winning novel, A Monster Calls. Human lives are all made up of stories – some nightmares, others of good, often naively, triumphing over evil. This film explores what happens when we have to confront that which we fear most.
The film is set in an unnamed town in the U.K., where twelve-year old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) struggles to keep his single-parent household going, while his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones), undergoes treatment after treatment for cancer. She puts on a brave face, but from the start it is clear that she much sicker than she tells her son. Conor is a quiet and sensitive boy, who loves drawing, taking after his mother who gave up her hopes of being an artist when she fell pregnant with him at the age of 18. Conor strains to keep himself from buckling under the weight of not only dealing with his mother’s illness, but also being bullied at school and facing the prospect of living with his intimidating, controlling grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
One night, just after midnight, Conor watches as the big yew tree he sees from his window every day, comes to life and moves towards him. It is a massive and frightening thing, with glowing red eyes. The Monster reaches in, his tendrils wrapping around the boy. The creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) informs Conor he’ll be told three stories, after which Conor is ordered to tell the tree his own story – the nightmare Conor has most nights, a dream the Monster calls Conor’s “truth”. Conor resists but is given no choice in the matter, and three times the Monster appears and tells him fairy tales that have strange endings, in which it’s often unclear who is the hero/ine or the enemy. Is the Monster real or is it a dream? What could be the purpose of these stories? Are they meant to contain a lesson of some sort and does the tree mean to help or harm Conor? As Lizzie’s health deteriorates, Conor’s father – who is living with his new family in Los Angeles – makes an appearance. But here is yet another adult who is not being completely truthful with Conor.
This is a stellar break-out role for Lewis MacDougall, whose only other big credit is a supporting role in 2015’s Pan. MacDougall’s every move and expression evince the unbearable pain the boy has to carry on his small shoulders. He takes the viewer on a journey through the vicissitude of a child skipping adolescence to face things only adults should. Conor’s face tells a tale of anger, despair, and resolute defiance. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver’s supporting roles lift MacDougall, allowing him to give a trailblazing performance that forced me to tears, twice. The strong bond between Conor and his mother is vivified by Jones and MacDougall’s interactions.
A Monster Calls is filled with striking and magical visuals. The Monster is a combination of CGI and a physically-built tree-‘Thing’, which lends the creature a more believable verisimilitude than if director J.A. Bayonan decided to use only computer graphics to bring the Monster to life. The animation of each of the Monster’s three tales is enchanting, artworks on their own. There is no one better than Neeson (aside from Morgan Freeman maybe) for the intonation needed to lend the monster a voice full of gravitas.
The film stays true to the spirit of the book, most likely because of Patrick Ness’s involvement in writing the screenplay, and it’s one of the best book-to-big screen adaptations in some time; dare I say, it might be even better than the novel. J.A. Bayonan showed his aptitude in being at the helm of a deeply emotional film with 2010’s The Impossible, about a family who survived the deadly 2004 tsunami in Thailand. In A Monster Calls Bayonan carefully straddles the precarious wall between a story aimed at children, and one whose intended audience is adults. The film is a dark, beautiful, and compassionate fable about confronting loss, and the freedom of truth, no matter how painful.
Director: J.A. Bayonan
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Rating: 4½ out of 5
SA release date: 13 January 2016