Drawn from an idea by Siobhan Dowd (who died before she could properly commence writing it) and then penned by Patrick Ness, the ‘Young Adult’ novel A Monster Calls is here brought to life by Spanish director J.A. Bayona, the man behind the unsettling The Orphanage and The Impossible.
It’s a serious fantasy drama (or ‘low fantasy’) that has been accused of being too dark and frightening by some, and there’s no doubt that this one is at times both — just like life.
A troubled English 12 year old named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) has an awful lot to deal with for such a young lad: his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying, his Dad (Toby Kebbell) seems increasingly estranged, he has a tricky relationship with his Grandma (Sigourney Weaver), and there’s a nasty bully at school (James Melville) who keeps rubbing it all in.
Conor has nightmares. After one he awakens at 12.07am and is visited by the fantastical Monster, a giant, tree-like guardian played by Liam Neeson via motion capture/‘mo-cap’ (see also Andy Serkis’ many FX characters or Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the dragon in the Hobbit pics) and with his distinctively rumbling voice.
The Monster tells the first of three tales (the story of an old king in which the Monster appears, and rendered via striking, stylised animation) and promises to return for more, and while it’s obvious that these narratives are symbolic and you’ll probably have an inkling of what the Monster is doing, there’s still no doubt that Bayona’s film is moving and emotionally rich.
Featuring fine work from MacDougall, Jones (not overdoing it) and Weaver (her best, straightest and toughest role in years), this is perhaps a hard film to discuss and it certainly isn’t a horror movie, despite the ominous title. Or is it? The apparently neutral Monster (whether it’s real or not) isn’t some kind of Kong or Alien figure that knocks down buildings and chews up the cast: it’s there to help young Conor through his crises and, surely, usher him into the scary realms of adolescence and adulthood.
How very monstrous.
Rated PG. A Monster Calls is in cinemas now