There is always something special about the best children’s stories. In that they always resonate with you deeply for the rest of your life. A great children’s story shouldn’t just be for children, it should appeal to everyone. The whole family. Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls certainly does that. It is a beautiful film, one that is entertaining and memorable for a child and thoroughly life-affirming for any teenager or adult. In a week where the competition is Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a stunning passion project stretching over three decades, it speaks volumes that A Monster Calls is the best thing to be released in 2017 so far.
The film follows young Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he struggles to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) malignant illness, a distant father (Toby Kebbel), an overbearing grandmother (Signorney Weaver) and a sadistic school bully (James Melville). In response to his pain, a monster from an old yew tree (Liam Neeson) appears in his dream to tell him stories and in return Connor will tell him a story of his own: The story of his own reoccurring nightmare.
There is an impressive darkness to it but one that makes the fantastical out of the normal. With its melancholy and its windswept surroundings. A low fantasy mixing humdrum daily life and gothic fantasy. Its monster recalls Tolkein, the story of the boy’s family and the setting is very Ken Loach and there is even some Bram Stoker in there. The yew tree that bores the monster sits in a graveyard on top of a hill with an ominous looking church.
Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), clearly takes inspiration from his own fabulous film, The Orphange, with its gothic sensibility, finding beauty in the darkness. The watercolor – style animation on the telling of the monster’s three stories adds to this with its twilight hues. The film is beautifully rich Its excellent emphasis on the dark side of childhood fantasy and fairy tale is reminiscent as the story poignantly and subtly reminds us of the sadness you feel when you realize childhood is over.
Ness also deserves tremendous credit for adapting his own story so well to the big screen in a way that does justice to the themes and beautiful melancholy of the novel. The structure of story within stories is a classic fairy tale trope but blended with everyday life to blur the lines between dreams and reality heighten emotional power.
Lewis MacDougall shows startling talent as a young actor as a troubled boy on the cusp of adolescence and having to grow up in painful circumstances. His mannerisms and ability to deliver several emotions with just one look is a rare find and he brings a full bloodied effort to proceedings. Felicity Jones once again delivers a stellar support performance with a toned down showing as Connor’s ill mother and after the debacle of Inferno is showing us that her dalliance with silly conspiracy gobbledygook was nothing more than a blip.
A Monster Calls is a tremendous film about grief and loss but conveyed in a beautiful way for a rich and rewarding film. Be prepared though, unless you are a heartless psychopath, you WILL cry more than once during this film.