J.A. Bayona/ Spain UK USA/ 2016/ 108 mins
At cinemas nationwide now
A Monster Calls often feels like a companion piece to The Orphanage, the stunning 2007 horror with which J.A. Bayona made his directorial debut. Both films use fantastical elements to show how people deal with the effects of grief caused by cataclysmic personal circumstances. While The Orphanage is at its core about the loss of a child, A Monster Calls is the flip side, examining the impending death of a parent from the perspective of a confused and angry adolescent.
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy dealing with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones) while suffering sustained bullying at school. He encounters a tree monster (voiced imposingly by Liam Neeson) who tells him stories to help him make sense of his situation.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, A Monster Calls is a heartfelt and blisteringly sad coming-of-age story told with a refreshing lack of tweeness, forging something fresh from standard elements. The bracing, wuthering backdrop of Brontë country adds a real sense of grit and earthiness to Conor’s life that wouldn’t be out of place in the films of Andrea Arnold or Clio Barnard. It is determinedly antithetical to a standard Hollywood treatment of the subject; a stance borne out by how ill and emaciated Felicity Jones looks – no decorous cinematic cancer here.
Against this the fantasy elements work wonderfully well as the monster weaves his tales. Animated as beautiful daubs of impressionistic water colour against which Conor and the nicely rendered CGI of the monster interact effortlessly. Beguiling, cryptic and slyly subversive, the stories suck traditional fairy-tale elements into a blender and spit out brutal allegories of human frailty and ambiguous morals that Conor struggles to make sense of.
A Monster Calls brings to mind recent classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Let the Right One In and if it pales (only slightly) in comparison, it’s because those are outright masterpieces. It also doesn’t quite hit the heights of The Orphanage, which balanced its scares and poignancy with the precision of a master architect. In that film, the emotional core and its depiction of grief feels like a more organic outcome of the story rather than its very reason for existing.
There will also be some that find A Monster Calls somewhat manipulative and overwrought, but there is more than enough of the stark realities of life and death to halt any descent into mawkishness. Rich, imaginative and emotionally nourishing, it’s another hugely impressive work from Bayona.