I hadn’t even heard of A Monster Calls until a few weeks ago, and then only had some interest because it starred Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), whom I like. Had no idea what the story was about (it’s adapted by Patrick Ness, from his novel of the same name), or if it was live action or animated. The movie poster is vague to say the least, as you can see. I put it on the back burner. Last week I read a short blurb that gave off an Iron Giant kind of vibe, and that kind of tied into the poster. Not like I had a ton of enthusiasm, but whatever was there ebbed away a little. Listen, not like I don’t love The Iron Giant like everyone else, but I don’t need to see a knock off. Movie came, movies went, and last night while home alone I decided to watch a double bill. The second movie was The Eyes Of My Mother, first was A Monster Calls. And frankly, it blew me away.
What struck me immediately were the production values. This is a great looking movie. The production design is fantastic, detailed and alive. You might wonder how does one actually rate production design? It’s somewhat easy to do on a sci fi or fantasy movie where the movie needs to look authentic for the mood it’s going for. Alien is a great example of that; the Nostromo has the feel of a massive boiler room, and the rest of the ship, like an engineer’s break room. The derelict ship a complete contrast full of dark mystery and ancient, unexplored things. In a real-world setting, production design needs to convey character, supplementing the writing and acting. Walk into the home of anyone you know and you can understand this is where that person lives. The house wouldn’t be interchangeable with that of anyone else. In A Monster Calls, this is done so well that you immediately get a strong sense of who both Lizzie Clayton (Jones) and her son Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) are. It allows the mind to settle into the lives of these people very early, and it’s noticeable for the fact it isn’t noticeable at all.
Similarly, the cinematography and score are beautiful, and I don’t mean to gloss over them, but there are very few segments of this movie that didn’t work for me and I don’t want to bore you too much! I mentioned in another review that people often confuse plot with what a movie is actually about. Many movies don’t have that other layer to be concerned about, beyond the writer’s attempt to shoehorn theme into their story, while some movies are obvious in their intent. A Monster Calls falls mostly in the latter here, but it plays it hand early on for the most part. Sure, the movie features a young boy who is visited by a giant monster (voiced here by Liam Neeson), but it’s a multi-layered tale that in the end transforms into a deeply affecting fable about the pain and damage we can do to ourselves by repressing our emotions – the “truths” of ourselves, as the Monster says.
This movie has a lot of story. Lizzie is dying of an aggressive cancer, and is exhausting what little medical options are available. As well as dealing with this, Conor, a bright, sensitive, apparently friendless boy is bullied in school. His father (Fantastic Four’s Toby Kebbell) is living in LA with his new family, and it’s clear there is little contact between the two. When Lizzie takes a turn for the worst, her mother (Sigourney Weaver) steps in to help, and the relationship between Conor and this new arrival is strained, further burdening the kid. It’s here, early in the movie, that the monster first appears. Conor’s bedroom window looks out to a distant church (a view I’d had killed for as a kid!), and the giant Yew tree which dominates the little cemetery. One night he watches as the tree uproots and transforms into a forty foot tall creature that looks like a mashup of an Ent from Lord of the Rings, Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Swamp Thing, from Alan Moore’s legendary run on the title. The monster announces, in Jacob Marley fashion that the boy will be told three stories, and like A Christmas Carol, this is what happens.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times how animation isn’t my thing, but two of the monster’s stories are told in animated fashion, and the animation is fantastic. The unique, arty sequences are simply gorgeous and dark and are the anti-generic Pixar standard that animated movies have become these days. I could totally watch a full length movie in this style. If any of you reading this have ever played the games Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Here are some images.
As the story progresses, and the pressures that come to bear on young Conor increase, the viewer is treated to another terrific performance from a young actor. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I praised Sennia Nanua for her turn in The Girl With All The Gifts, but MacDougall’s performance is equally affecting, in a totally different manner. Where Nanua showed a lot of versatility and maturity in her role, MacDougall’s performance is all emotionally driven, and he’s a joy to watch here as the story drives him further and further to the breaking point that is the ultimate theme of the movie.
There’s one completely unexplored subplot of the movie which disappointed me, given how everything else is laid bare. Conor is bullied by a trio of kids at his school, but the main bully has something of his own going on – almost every time they are in class together, the bully appears to be dealing with some kind of inner torture. It’s beautiful and subtle, but when he confronts Conor, he just acts like a toff bully. I would have liked that subplot to have led to a stronger payoff than what actually happens.
The movie, realized in December 2016, was a commercial failure, which is a shame. More than likely, the marketing team on it just had no idea to sell it to the public, as shown in the vague movie poster. This is not a movie about a kid who has a giant tree monster friend, it’s about a gentle kid with a dying mother, consumed by guilt for the feelings that he has bottled within him, that threaten to tear him apart. It’s a truly beautiful, deeply emotional, and affecting movie, and I’m not going to lie here – I actually broke out in tears towards the end of this movie – only the third time in my life that I’ve been so moved by the power of film. The others were Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan (hey, I was 15!), and the Robert DeNiro/Robin Williams movie Awakenings. I can’t recommend this movie enough.
© Andrew Hope, 2017