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A Monster Calls – Movie Review

28 December, 2016 — by Ben Rabinovich0

A Monster Calls is a moving film that subverts the concept of fairy tales and paints a fascinating portrait of a young boy dealing with loss as best he can.

Lewis MacDougall stands next to Monster in A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls gets off to a slow start, intentionally so. Watching Connor (Lewis MacDougall) go through the calm routine of chores, being bullied at school and drawing at home while his mother’s (Felicity Jones) health is clearly deteriorating paints a complicated picture. Connor’s attempts to maintain the normalcy of his and his mother’s life makes him appear to be in some sort of dual state where he is in denial about what’s happening to her.

Connor believes the medication and science will ultimately pull through and cure her cancer and doesn’t see the point of staying with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), yet he is then haunted by nightmares of holding his mother’s hand as she dangles above the abyss, waking up every time just after her hand leaves his. The implication being that Connor thinks he is to blame for her deterioration. If that sounds slightly primitive and on the nose, it isn’t. A Monster’s Call is a much more intelligent, terrifying film that it initially looks.

J. A Bayona flexes his horror-film skills (he directed 2007’s The Orphanage) to turn the nightmares into a hurricane of flashing images, overwhelming noise and general panic. It’s visceral, horrifying and underlines the tragedy of a 12-year-old boy haunted by images of his mother dying over and over again every night.

Felicity Jones hugging Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls

And it only gets more terrifying as Liam Neeson’s titular monster comes calling, rising from the ground of a cemetery like a Tolkien’s Ent on steroids, insouciantly crushing everything in his path as he makes his way to Connor. The monster tells Connor that he will tell him three stories and that Connor will then have to tell him a fourth, which should be his ‘truth’.

This is where the film truly steps into its element. Rather than simply rehashing the banal point of fairy tales being a didactic mechanism that people use to process their stresses – the simplistic, rigid structure, unshakeable moral codes (“good will always triumph over bad”) being like narrative junk food for our unpredictable, suffocating lives – A Monster Calls subverts them wonderfully.

Yes, the Monster’s tales are a mechanism for Connor to process the maelstrom of emotions he’s feeling, but it is merely a set-up rather than the premise. Patrick Ness – adapting the script from his own novel – disrupts the stories and enriches them to make a much more salient point about real life.

Lewis MacDougall running in A Monster Calls

The Monster’s stories are complicated, messy, even amoral because that is a much more accurate reflection of society: humans are, as the Monster booms, somewhere “in between” being good and evil. Good people make bad, terrible decisions but that doesn’t make them bad, it makes them human. The point being that fairy tales can only be effective therapies when they reflect the people they are supposed to be helping.

What makes A Monster Calls an excellent film is not just the wonderful acting (Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall and Sigourney Weaver just get better and better as the film goes on) but the respect it has for its characters. Connor is not some poor little helpless child. Yes he is terrified, suffocated by unpredictable emotions and overwhelmed by guilt for what he knows not, yet he understands what he must do to help his family and ultimately himself. He doesn’t need our pity, it is us that need his strength. And by God I needed it to keep from crying along with everyone else in the cinema. 4/5

Please note this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October. 

A Monster Calls

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