Director J.A. Bayona (best known for 2007’s The Orphanage) teams up with his long-time cinematographer and collaborator, Oscar Faura, to conjure a stunning and, if somewhat sentimental, moving Gothic fairy-tale in his latest offering, A Monster Calls.
lt has a lot going for it; a very strong cast, highly ornate and convincing special effects and a well written and intelligently crafted story. The latter owing to the work of author Patrick Ness, who penned the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name.
Sharing the production designer from Guillermo Del Toro‘s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as some of the team behind the special effects from that film, then although comparisons can and will be drawn between the two films, then the technical aesthetic that they share is largely where such comparison should begin and end. A Monster Calls is thematically similar, in that both films compose the coming-of-age story of a child seeking guidance from a somewhat frightening preternatural creature that emerges from nature (in Pan’s Labyrinth it’s a fawn, here a giant yew tree), but tonally the two are leagues apart.
Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, who is struggling with the reality of his single-mother’s terminal illness. And it’s a break-out role for the youngster, showing an admirable, albeit limited by his years, range in leading such a big movie whilst maintaining the essential vulnerability of youth that makes his performance so affective.
Felicity Jones, although limited on screen time, gives a warmth and reality to her situation albeit from the slightly idealised perspective of her adoring son. Apart from one moment when she says she’s ‘angry too’, you wouldn’t know it, as Jones is delicate and motherly, almost in a saintly way, rendering her unable to show the process she must be going through as her illness overtakes the efforts for treatment. Anyway, the film is crafted from Conor’s perspective, the journey, the rage, the sorrow, the self-discovery, the view of his mother, are all his and so ours too.
The bullies at school, the over-bearing ogre of a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the ever-absent father (Toby Kebbell) are all sub-plots that merely add tapestry to the core design. That of this young boy turning to his imagination to escape the harsh realities presented by his life. That imagination takes form in a giant yew tree, voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson, that comes to life and challenges him with stories from times gone by in a not-too-thinly veiled mechanism to subconsciously process his grief and turmoil.
Apart from Conor, the characters are largely vignettes and, yes, Weaver’s accent is a little dodgy, Jones a touch too ethereal, Kebbell restricted to charming failure, but they are extremely well-crafted ones and serve their purpose perfectly. Visually, it’s a tour de force with the watercolour realisations of the tree’s mythical tales beautifully complementing the darker world that Conor finds himself trapped in.
Technically, it’s a spectacle. Brilliantly helmed and with a stellar cast, A Monster Calls is a thoroughly enjoyable and moving tale.