(Warning: When you see this film…take tissues. Take lots and lots of tissues. Heck, take a box, because otherwise there will be an Alice in Wonderland-esque sea of tears ready to drift you right out of the theatre and you’ll only have yourself to blame!)
Young Connor O’Malley is a boy lost in a tempest of sadness and anger: bullied, isolated, pitied and most painful of all, supporting a mother struggling to fight illness. One night, at seven past midnight, Connor’s world changes forever, as a monster, body forged of bark and fire, announces itself to him and reveals that he will share three stories with the young boy. However, after his third tale, Connor must tell him a fourth story, the story of his truth, a truth Connor has buried deep inside.
The sheer emotional power A Monster Calls is able to conjure is truly remarkable, born from director J.A. Bayona’s careful translation of the story from page to screen. It would have been easy to drain every last drop of tragedy out of the melodrama inherent within the narrative, but Bayona never stoops to exploit or condescend the audience, instead choosing to allow the heart of the film to beat freely through the exquisitely crafted world he builds through the combination of his and author/screenwriter Patrick Ness’ imagination. Bayona seems to channel references to Universal Monster movies in its subtly gothic melodrama and Steven Spielberg in sheer spectacle (one particular image directly evokes the iconography of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a simple act of framing), but the clearest referential touchstone seems to be that of Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive.
Sharing clear narrative reflections, Bayona draws on the subtle blending of the fantastical and the everyday that Erice utilised so powerfully to tell a tale of innocence in the face of horrors too great to articulate; for Erice, it was the legacy of the Spanish Civil War…for Bayona and Ness, it’s the spectre of cancer. Visually, the expression of fantasy in the film is a work of artistic joy that channels both a baroque splendour reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish language works, and the aforementioned Spielberg touch of awe in the contrast between the common and the exceptional. In particular, the boldness of Bayona’s vision can be seen in the visual style he adopts for the Monster’s tales; escaping the space of the real world, the monster’s words (given tremendous gravitas by the deep authority of Liam Neeson’s voice) are brought to life through watercolour artistry
Yet, Bayona holds dearly onto the physicality of the real world: in the opening scenes, a rogue string of beads from a beaded door curtain is snared on Connor’s top as he fills the washing machine. It distorts the balance of the image, but in its presence it says everything about the grounded texture of Connor’s world, and his detachment from it as he obliviously completes his chore. This detachment foregrounds the interior world that is waiting to be unleashed upon the film, a spectacle of fantasy that is bursting with design and a boundless form, one that Bayona embraces for spectacle, where Erice reduces it down back into the natural. The connection between the films is also reinforced in Bayona’s framing of the birth of wonder in the film through the eyes of a child. Just as Ana’s imagination is sparked by a mobile cinema showing Frankenstein in Spirit of the Beehive, it can be argued that Connor’s mother showing him King Kong on her father’s projector is the same moment of uncanny that brings both reality and fantasy together through the connecting tissue of film itself, as the tragic, misunderstood creature becomes symbolic not only of the monster that comes into Connor’s life, but the tragic sense of misunderstanding around Connor’s own thoughts and feelings by those around him. The boldness of the use of fantasy entwined with a world audiences are brutally connected to, only serves to reinforce the real horror of staring cancer in the face, and the reality of the heartache that seeps into the everyday of the lives of those who are suffering, and the families trying to support them dearly.
Strangely for a film with such emotional impact, for the most part, the performances on display don’t hold the same level of honesty and quality. Initially, Lewis MacDougall seems to struggle to truly embody the character of Conor with the required personality to empathise with him beyond pity; however, as the fantasy and emotions swell through the course of the film, MacDougall seems to settle into the role, and in particular, expresses the tempest of emotions battling to break free from within Conor with a raw power that only serves to enhance the audience’s relationship to him and his traumatic position. The same can’t be said however for the supporting cast, in particular Toby Kebbell and Felicity Jones as Conor’s parents. Kebbell seems to play the father with a sense of detachment that goes beyond that of an absent father, and more toward sheer lethargy; and sadly, while representing the key emotional touch site for Conor in the scope of the story, Felicity Jones seems to just drift through the film as his mother, not ever truly convincing in a role that requires great restraint and conviction, often leaning towards exaggerated melodrama in her performance more than any other actor in the film. The most impactful performance ultimately comes from Liam Neeson, who with seeming effortlessness, fully carves the character of the monster with just the gravelly and powerful tones of his voice, giving him a presence that serves to create a scale of spectacle even greater than that of the CGI form itself.
A Monster Calls is a work of nuanced sensitivity and beauty, imbued with a rare emotional power that is utterly devastating, but in its truth, invites a warmth and honesty about life, love and self-identity that resonates long after the credits roll.