A Monster Calls depicts the inner and outer world of a 12yo boy whose mother is dying. Visually impressive, but doesn’t hit the emotional heights it should.
A Monster Calls is a dark coming-of-ager dealing with 12yo Conor’s (Lewis McDougall) struggle to come to terms with the impending death of his terminally ill mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones).
Conor and Lizzie live in a cottage with a fittingly miserable outlook over a misty church and graveyard, with a huge, ancient yew tree a dominating feature. Conor’s troubles do not end with his ailing mother. He’s being mercilessly bullied at school, and doesn’t get on with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), his likely future guardian. His re-partnered father, visiting from the States, claims he doesn’t have room for the boy in his LA abode (which doesn’t add up, since he appears to love his son and could surely make some adjustments to accommodate him in the event of his mother’s death).
One night when Conor is in the depths of despair, the yew transforms into a fearsome giant tree man with innards of fire and flaming red eyes. The visuals are beautifully executed and would be jaw-dropping if we weren’t already so accustomed to wondrous CGI and other screen magic. The lad is accustomed to horror, it seems, and refuses to succumb to fear, despite the creature scooping him up in one hand King Kong style.
It transpires that the tree-man (voiced by Liam Neeson) is a vital support for Conor in a time of great need. He takes on a mentoring role, guiding the boy through the painful journey ahead via three stories. Conor’s part of the deal is to tell a fourth story in return, which requires him to summon the courage to speak the truth he dares not face.
The narrative operates on two levels: the literal (the happenings in the boy’s external world) and the figurative (his inner world, in which he is accompanied by the monster). As Lizzie’s fight nears its end, Conor is forced to confront the grim reality for what it is, and his inner and outer worlds meld through a dramatic, symbolically obvious image that bookends the film and recurs throughout, in which he clutches desperately at his mother’s hand to save her from slipping into the oblivion of a yawning black hole that has opened before them.
The visuals are the most impressive aspect of the film. The monster’s stories, for example, are beautifully rendered in water-colour-like pastel-hued animation. Unfortunately, they’re rather obscure in meaning, and it’s doubtful that the older kid audience at which the movie is principally directed will connect with them or put much effort into figuring out what they’re all about. As a very old kid, I didn’t. It seemed to me that they mostly functioned to caution that life is not ordered like fairy tales, that people are complex and confound expectations, and that good and bad, angel and beast, co-exist in all of us. Uh huh.
Curiously, given Conor’s heartbreaking lot, the film lacks emotional power. Sure, it’s moving at times, but ultimately falls far short of the heartbreaker you expect it to be.
Part of the problem is that Conor’s relationship with his mother is not explored in any depth, the focus being on his spiky (and not very interesting) interaction with his stern and unaccountably cold grandmother. Further, Conor himself is not particularly endearing (despite a terrific performance from Lewis McDougall). His turmoil is relentless, which is understandable in the circumstances, but like the bleak mood of the film, gets a bit wearisome after a while.
Full marks to the filmmakers for tackling a subject as heavy as parental death and presenting it to the young target demographic without comforting visions of heavenly afterlife etc. The downside is that there’s a sense that the story and characters are shackled by an educative sub-agenda, which leaves the film feeling slightly ponderous and self-important at times.
A Monster Calls features: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, monster voiced by Liam Neeson
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay, based on his novel), Siobhan Dowd (original idea)
Runtime: 108 min
Australian release date: A Monster Calls in Australian cinemas from 27 July 2017
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