‘In your world I have another name and you must know me by it’ said Liam Neeson in Narna. His was a voice of gravitas there and continues to be so in J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls. If Neeson’s Aslan was C. S. Lewis’ creator in another land, his Monster is Bayona’s death in our own.
Patrick Ness’ bestselling and award-winning novel, A Monster Calls, was formally based on ideas conceived by children’s writer Siobhan Dowd. A Carnegie Medalist herself, Dowd had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004 and latterly dreamed up the aforementioned tale. A dream, or perhaps it was a nightmare. As Ness put it: ‘She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.’ Major success that the book was, and equal success that the film must be, is down to Ness granting Dowd and concept that vital time. From such a heart wrenching conception, A Monster Calls is consumed with a very personal grief and all that comes with it. If the film imparts anything to its audience it is the assurance that anger is okay. Death is more than sadness and one of the many triumphs Bayona achieves here, with Ness on board as screenwriter, is to tease out the honest human emotions that come with the trauma of loss.
Promising newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Connor O’Malley, a boy struggling through a life plagued with bullying at school, an awkward relationship with his grandmother (the Sigourney Weaver) and having to come to terms with the terminal cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). In his first appearance (‘I have come for you Connor O’Malley’) the Monster notes Connor’s lack of fear; the dream is nothing on this young man’s reality. The real trauma is all in his head of course, those tumultuous battles, but Ness’ story unleashes the imagination of a child to bring them to the third dimension. Connor represents every single one of us; we have all felt this. It’s confusing, it’s complicated, it’s infuriating. It’s desperately lonely.
MacDougall reminds of a young Asa Butterfield and is adorned by an impressively a-list cast. Jones will take you down with her disintegration whilst Toby Kebbell, Neeson and Weaver make for a solid core – despite a slightly forced accent from the latter. That three of the four are Academy-Award Nominees is testament to how seriously A Monster Calls takes its subject matter. Grief is isolation and it’s a wise move Bayona makes to focus only on Connor’s immediate relationships, no other supporter receiving more than medium shots. Though big-hitters, Weaver and co. hold back from stealing the limelight; it’s a heavy load MacDonall has to bear but one he carries well.
Closer to scene-stealing would be Bayona’s Romanticist landscape – think Friedrich – in fitting with the intensity of the film’s emotive core. A little reminiscent of motifs from 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia but a more definite descendent of Guillermo deal Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (a film from the same production company), the visuals here are in the dark fairytale vein. Throughout, A Monster Calls utilises a less horror-driven animated means of illustrating the Monster’s tales, rather akin to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1‘s ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’. It’s almost a shame that this is the chosen route because whilst it does work, give or take a niggle, the effect is almost to distance the viewer from both the film’s reality and own artistic excellence. Nonetheless, Neeson’s Monster is brilliantly realised, not quite as morally ambiguous as Pan‘s Faun, and well captures Jim Kay’s original, award-winning publication drawings.
There’s no doubt of where the real meets surreal when it comes to the effects. You can be pretty certain that no churchyards were harmed in the making of this feature. What Bayona does well here is to so fluidly interlock them as to make their meanings are transparently clear: destruction is rage, it’s the release. It’s another slight shame that script itself doesn’t quite achieve these nuances of direction and cinematography with the occasional backdrop line clunking too broadly around subtler themes.
‘Most of us just get messily ever afters’ says Connor’s Dad but A Monster Calls is far more than that. An unparalleled portrait of bereavement, this is heartbreaking emotional and brutally truthful. A Monster Calls is deeply nuanced and an open book for interpretation. Note Neeson’s visual cameo as Connor’s own Grandfather whose own death haunted his daughter as hers affects his grandson. Jones’ line ‘I wish I had a hundred years to give to you’ comes straight from the heart and A Monster Calls is that gift. The monster did not come to heal Lizzie O’Malley, he came to heal us.