It now being the new year we are entering the most feared of cinematic periods – award season, and as such for our consideration films are being released for popular viewing. January 1st alone has two films in contention released; Martin Scorsese’s long gestated passion project Silence, and this adaptation of Patrick Ness’ low-fantasy story, A Monster Calls.
The plot concerns young Conor O’Malley (Lewis Macdougall) who struggles to cope as his mother (Felicity Jones) succumbs to an unspecified terminal cancer. When his Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and absent father (Toby Kebbell) come into his life to look after him, he is visited by an ancient Yew tree (Liam Neeson) who insists on telling him three stories that will help cure something enigmatic.
J.A. Bayona’s third directorial outing is the culmination of the two before it. Not just the spooky but harrowing The Orphanage, but also the epic yet intimate The Impossible. In A Monster Calls, he mixes the fantasy of a monster telling allegorical stories and the closed off family drama of a boy and his mother. Naturally the film is being compared to last year’s exceptional Room, with obvious reasons. It comes from a bestselling book, with a teerjerky bent, it features a central story of a mother and a son, a fantasy construct to protect the boy, and is clearly going to clean up come awards season.
Performance wise it’s a solid quintet of central performances. Lewis Macdougall handles the role of Conor well, even when there are whole long sequences in which he simply has to look at other people. His performance reminds you not of young performances like the wonderful Jacob Tremblay, but of Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life or even of Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot, while both Kebbell and Jones are perfect as his parents, one distant and guilt ridden the other ailing and loving.
But, alongside Macdougall the two really attention grabbing turns are Sigourney Weaver as the stone faced Grandmother who shows little emotion towards her young grandson and Neeson as The Monster reminding you why he was such a good mentor figure in both Star Wars and Batman Begins, while his voice growls like a low burning fire, he manages to channel Aslan through the mangle of his Taken persona.
The film triumphs because Bayona knows how to balance the emotional beats, with the big special effects moments. The Monster is so fully realised you never begin to think “oh look it’s Groot” or even Tree-Beard, he is his own creature, with facial expressions and coursing fire. The scenes between Macdougall and The Monster are so realistic that you forget it’s between a fifty foot tree and a little boy.
Jim Kay’s famous artwork that made the book so compelling and haunting is brought onto the screen not only for the opening credits but for the story sequences (a hint of The Deathly Hallows part one stand out sequence), the water colour paint sequences are some of the most gorgeous animation put on film, while the messages aren’t always as obvious as they may seem.
The film clearly has an important message about grief, in that Conor’s stubborn resolve that his mother will get better and his own loneliness are offset by the fact that he fails to see the pain in his Grandmother who is losing her daughter. What is made clear is that no one has a monopoly on grief.
This might be the first significant film of 2017, but already it is a huge thumbs up, a triumph of emotion, spectacle and storytelling. See it for it’s incredible message, touching performances, and most of all see it because despite its titular Tree, it’s an incredibly truthful film.