A unique and accessible tale of tragedy, A Monster Calls brings the sadness of one small family to the silver screen with great success. Based on the Patrick Ness novel of the same name, A Monster Calls tells the tale of one boy’s struggle against the inevitability of his mother’s cancer via a series of short stories told by towering Ent-like tree creature ‘The Monster’ (suitably voiced by a gravelly Liam Neeson).
Whilst Liam Neeson may be playing a monster, the monster is of course the sickness killing young Conor O’Malley’s mother. Waking terrified from a recurring dream that takes place in his local church graveyard, Conor O’Malley isn’t having the best time of late. He’s bullied at school, his Dad has sodded off to America to begin life with a new family, and he has to go and stay with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) whom he hates.
Whilst afraid to sleep one night, Conor is visited by Neeson’s tree monster, who promptly informs Conor that he will visit three times to tell three tales and then it will be Conor’s turn to tell the fourth. It’s these stories that are the standout of the film as they’re entirely animated using shadows and bright colours, and each story forms part of a greater lesson which we only learn alongside Conor at the very end of the film.
In between the visual escapism of the tree’s tales, Conor faces the day to day realities of his life. A Monster Calls walks a fine line between fantasy and reality, and sometimes it strays too far into the former as the fantastical elements occasionally detract from the emotional impact of the ‘real world’ storyline. But not enough to stop the film from drawing a few tears, and somehow the film manages to simultaneously crush and uplift at its end, delivering a life lesson that’s important for all to hear. On an emotional level, I’d compare this to John Green’s A Fault in our Stars, if that made you bawl your eyes out this will too.
Across the board performances are strong, especially from Lewis MacDougall as Conor and Felicity Jones as his mother. I was very impressed by Jones, particularly after her rather lacklustre appearance in Rogue One as plot device Jyn Erso, but we know she’s capable of far more thanks to her performance both here and in The Theory of Everything. Sigourney Weaver is solid as Grandma, though many may find her English accent bizarre as it sounds like someone doing an impression of what an English person should sound like rather than what they actually sound like.
Though the novel is considered a children’s low fantasy novel, the issues and relationships it tackles are very real and the film wonderfully translates the frustration, anger, guilt and love caused by tragedy. A moving and emotional tale, A Monster Calls utilises brilliantly contrasting visuals and a tightly written screenplay to tell a story that lets us all know that sometimes it’s OK to let go.