J. A. Bayona proves that fantasy can reveal truth in this devastating portrait of grief.
Director: J. A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis McDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver
Country: UK, Spain, USA
Runtime: 108 mins
Release date: 1 January 2018
He doesn’t know how or why, but as his mother battles with cancer, Conor O’Malley calls a monster. The monster, a towering man of branches and sap, says that he will tell Conor three stories, and when those stories are told, Conor must tell the monster his truth. When, in the film’s final stages, Conor tells his truth, it reveals A Monster Calls as a profoundly honest film, a discussion of loss and acceptance that left me in tears.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his mother (Felicity Jones) in a small English town that doesn’t even have a Tesco. When Conor’s mother needs to be readmitted to hospital, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, affecting a distracting English accent) turns up and offers to take Conor in for the duration. This does not please Conor one bit; he’s not even allowed to touch anything at Grandma’s house. Then the monster comes calling, and offers to help Conor by telling stories, a form of assistance Conor finds dubious at best.
Even as a mostly computer generated presence, the monster is a gloriously physical creature. The sound design adds real heft to its movements as it smashes furniture or shoves its head through the roof, a chandelier pushed aside by its gigantic face. Liam Neeson’s voice work has a sage, mythical quality. Neeson portrays the monster as a creature who knows more than it’s letting on, who will aggressively and cryptically push Conor towards revelation.
The stories the monster tells are presented to us in magnificent watercolour animation. The tales themselves are tangentially related to Conor’s life and struggles, giving the film a passing resemblance to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (no surprise, as del Toro mentored director J. A. Bayona on his debut film The Orphanage). But Conor becomes increasingly frustrated with the monster as none of these stories offer any hope for his slowly deteriorating mother.
When the monster’s stories have all been told, it is time for Conor to reciprocate and tell the monster his own truth. Conor’s truth, the meaning of his nightmare that recurs throughout the film, is a real punch to the gut. I lost my mother to cancer several years ago, and what Conor reveals as the truth he has been running from the entire film is, without a doubt, the most heart-wrenchingly honest statement on the loss of a loved one after an illness that I have ever seen committed to celluloid. I was in tears as the film forced me to confront something I’d been struggling with since my mother passed.
What is most remarkable is that this kind of emotional weight is being dealt by a fantasy film. Everyone knows that fantasy and fairy tales can examine general issues of the human condition; but for a fantasy to go this deep, to get right to the heart of a specific issue yet make it universal, is truly staggering. I was blown away by A Monster Calls. It is a tremendously powerful film that deserves to become a classic.