A Monster Calls
Director - JA Bayona
Cast - Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell
Rating - 4/5
Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying. Nightmares rouse him from sleep every morning. At school, all day, he is bullied. His evenings go by in a blur, his mother’s shrieks unavoidable through the thin walls of his room. But at night, at 12.07, he stares out of his window. At night, if he wills hard enough, a monster calls…
It looks like a tree, branches and roots jutting out from every inch of its lumbering body, with fire in its wise eyes, and an unpredictable wit always at the ready. Conor believes the monster has come to offer him peace, but no. All the monster wants to do, in his own gruff way, is to tell Conor 3 stories, and once he has fulfilled his plan, he wants Conor to tell him a fourth. The fourth story, the monster says, is the truth that Conor has been looking for.
A Monster Calls is based on one of the finest books of 2011, written by Patrick Ness. To write about a book you love, and a movie that might one day become just as dear, is a great privilege. That it might become just as special for others is the hope with which I recommend both. It would probably not matter which you experienced first – although both come with their own unique charms – but I sense that watching the film would, as is usually the case with book-to-screen adaptations, be more rewarding having read the novel first.
But because the film has been adapted by Ness himself, it hits every beat, every note, and every memory with the same grace. And with director JA Bayona’s unexpectedly flamboyant visuals, the story, which was already quite devastating, is elevated.
Perhaps it is because of the ambitious, surreal, animated segues, or perhaps it is the dour tone – which might, admittedly, prove to be too dour for some - there is a weirdness to the film. For it to have been directed by Bayona, who has one fantastic horror movie to his credit (The Orphanage) and one disaster film (The Impossible), makes its success more impressive.
To have captured grief with such raw honesty, not just the confusion, but also the rage, is where Bayona has knocked it out of the park. This immense burden – to project the battered heart of this story, to grapple mortality (and morality) has been placed on the young shoulders of Lewis MacDougall, who, it has to be said, is a rare find. Not only does he carry the film for long stretches by himself, he also overshadows the towering Liam Neeson (who has voiced the monster).
But like death, the binding theme of this film, movies like A Monster Calls are always uncomfortable to watch. We curl up in confusion whenever our emotions are manipulated. The immediate reaction is to withdraw. But if that becomes impossible, if running away from it becomes too difficult, the only option that remains is to submit.
Grief, and how we react to it, takes different forms for us all. Where adults would seek counselling, a 12-year-old, this 12-year-old, finds solace in the depths of his vivid imagination. He destroys property, he lets himself be bullied and beaten – just to be able feel. Something. Anything.
To accept the truth, to will oneself to carry on, to survive – that is why the monster calls. That is the discomfort from which Conor runs. This is the fourth story.
Watch the trailer here