A Monster Calls – Film Review
Directed by J. A. Bayona
Starring Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
Reviewed by David Turpin
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, A Monster Calls makes full use of the visual effects élan of director J. A. Bayona to tell the story of a young boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who finds himself visited at night by a Monster configured from the yew tree on a nearby hill. The purpose of this Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), eventually reveals itself as being to help Conor address his feelings regarding the impending death of his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). This the Monster achieves by a mixture of storytelling and therapy-session cajoling, eventually nudging Conor toward an acceptance of the mysterious duality of a life that is both beautiful and, indeed, monstrous.
The central thesis of A Monster Calls – illustrated in two rather pat, but handsomely rendered, animated interludes – is that it is possible for one’s lived experience to simultaneously pull in two equal and opposite directions, for instance to both despair and hope. This is a provocative idea, particularly for what is essentially a children’s film, and it also offers a handy way of resolving any ambivalence one may feel about the film itself. A Monster Calls is supremely well-intentioned, often beautifully made, and only a churl would argue that it doesn’t have a place in this world; unfortunately, just as it is possible for a winsome prince to also be a dastardly villain (as per the Monster’s first narrative), it’s also possible for a film that’s very “good” in a moral sense to be simply “okay” in other senses.
One problem with A Monster Calls is that there is never a particularly persuasive delineation between the “real” and “fantastic” worlds. Although the entire film turns on the dichotomy between what Conor can see and what the outside world perceives, that outside world is rendered with such digital chocolate-box fussiness that it registers as at least as otherworldly as the domain of tree monsters and enchanted kingdoms. Conor’s socio-economic background is so flimsily conjured that he ends up seeming something of a phantasm himself – trudging from his mother’s charmingly down-at-heel (but improbably massive) home, to a school with a tiny yard and a dining hall the size of an aircraft hanger, to the lavishly appointed home of his Grandmother (Signourney Weaver), a supposedly prim English matron who keeps saying things like “gonna”, “gotta” and “dammit”. The yew tree itself is such a fastidiously art-direction construction that it scarcely seems any more fantastical when it stands up and starts intoning life lessons. One commendable exception to the general air of unreality, however, is the relative frankness with which Conor’s mother’s illness is presented. Although – presumably in some vague gesture toward mythic universalism – the word “cancer” is never used, the film sidesteps the usual impulse to have its doomed heroine get ever prettier and more beatific as she edges toward death.
When the Monster describes himself as being as old as the land itself, A Monster Calls hints at an intriguing folkloric strand touching upon the singular idea of “Haunted England”. This strand gets a kind-of-sort-of pay-off in the film’s closing moments, but ultimately Ness and Bayona are more interested in generality than specificity. The film believes, earnestly and good-heartedly, in the commonality of certain human experiences – a stance that’s certainly hard to argue with when the experiences in question are loss and death. However, by concerning itself solely with the “big” questions, the film ends up feeling rather boxed-off and generic. Unlike Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) or Lucille Hadzilhalilovic’s Innocence (2004) or Evolution (2015), for instance, A Monster Calls never really presents the fertile territory of adolescent psychology as anything other than schematic. Ultimately, Ness’s story has more in common with the fantasies of Neil Gaiman, in that it takes an elaborate, superficially gothic, route to arrive at a destination that is, if not trite, then certainly something of a right-on truism.
For all that, A Monster Calls is infinitely preferable to the rinky-dink smugness of Harry Potter or the identikit spectacle-sludge of a Marvel film. The mere fact of its existence as a film for young people conceived on a human(ish) scale is something to applaud, and it seems certain to provide younger audiences with means to begin conversations that don’t get any easier as one grows older, whatever myths they may be told about age bringing wisdom. It also finds space for a cameo from Geraldine Chaplin, which makes it a must-see for this correspondent, at any rate. It’s a shame only that, for a film about uncertainty, it always feels so pre-determined, and that, for a film about monsters – both literal and figurative – it always feels so safe.