If director, J.A Bayona brings a fraction of the warmth, charm and magic that’s in evidence in A Monster Calls to his Jurassic World sequel (cited for 2018), then he’s got a sure-fire success on his hands.
Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s critically acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name, benefits from also having had Ness write the screenplay, and I am informed by those that know – not having read it myself – that Bayona’s film is a pretty faithful rendition of the book. As much as any film can be, that is.
The transition into our teen years is difficult enough, and in Conor’s case, he has more than his fair share of angst-filled issues to contend with. Relentlessly bullied at school, with a father who has relocated to California, and a mother (Felicity Jones) battling a serious illness, Conor finds himself alone and rather unhappy; very much a boy with the weight of the world on his young shoulders.
With the shattering news that his mother’s health continues to deteriorate and that she will be hospitalised in order to receive more treatment, he will have to live with his strict Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Theirs is a ‘strained’ relationship at best, and the latest in a sequence of events pushing Conor towards his tipping point.
Salvation, however, can sometimes reveal itself from the most unlikely of sources. In Conor’s case, it’s by way of his own vivid imagination and a large, imposing yew tree that stands tall at the rear of his mother’s house. These two ingredients serve to create a monster in Conor’s mind, (voiced by the rumbling, bass-heavy tones of Liam Neeson – a perfect fit), whose fearsome appearance and manner seem heaven-sent, matching his own need to lash out and release his frustrations by breaking things – lots of things. Very much one in the eye for the injustices that plague his life.
Conor’s flights of mind-fuelled, Monster-infused fantasy fluctuate in and out of his own reality with at times disastrous consequences, yet those who are most affected by his outlandish actions remain reluctant to treat the young man with anything other than pity and understanding, mindful of his predicament. This is all much to Conor’s own bewilderment and chagrin.
But, as time will reveal, Conor’s monster is not all jack hammer and ‘bovver boots’. Indeed, by way of regaling tales that demonstrate life’s lessons, the monster gradually enables him to come to terms with his considerable frustrations, and crucially, empowers him to admit to himself the hidden truth that he keeps locked deep within himself. Only by admitting this can Conor learn to accept the gravity of his mother’s condition, and prepare himself to let her go.
Liam Neesons’ Monster is a terrifically daunting presence, though not overly so for younger viewers, with its authoritarian nature and menacing outer appearance that belies an assured, dependable warmth and wisdom.
Lewis MacDougall is splendidly outwardly-emotional as Conor, Felicity Jones is tender and loving as his incapacitated mother, whilst Sigourney Weaver’s casting as the Grandmother is spot-on; portraying as she does, a strong, dependable woman whose good intentions are stymied somewhat by her rather prim and stand-offish demeanour.
Bayona’s film is visually beautiful, whilst Fernando Velázquez’ soundtrack is suitably evocative. Perhaps most impressive of all though are the considerable layers of this tale that Ness and Bayona successfully weave together, elevating A Monster Calls from just simple children’s tale into a totally different beast altogether.
Rich in metaphors, and full of subtlety, nuance and ever so clever tiny details – blink and you miss them – A Monster Calls is on one level, fantasy, but on another, a very human tale of frustrations, loving bonds, heart-break and hope; and the entire thing is very beautifully realised by a director who, in collaborating with the story’s author, has clearly understood and unearthed the very essence of Ness’ novel.
A Monster Calls is a very moving and touching piece of cinema that’s almost certainly set to last the test of time.