J.A. Bayona, 2016, USA-Spain
So, before the film starts, I’m wondering if its reputation as a weepy is due to it using proper emotional content or the contrived stuff – the kind often called Spielbergian – that manipulates and ultimately leaves me cold. And then there are the ‘trailers appropriate to the film’ and they show the trailer for ‘Trainspotting 2’ and I am thinking How is that at all appropriate? But then I am predicting that the tone of ‘A Monster Calls’ is probably going to be more mature than ‘Trainspotting 2’ which I haven’t seen but it’s Danny Boyle and I know the type. How’s that for knee-jerk unreasonable criticism?
Anyway, I anticipated that ‘A Monster Calls’, an adaptation of Patrick Ness's book, would be mostly successful as soon as I heard that J.A. Boyona was directing: Boyona’s ‘The Orphange’ was a winner, visually lush and provided me with one of those proper scares (the game to summon the ghosts). As soon as the opening credits for ‘A Monster Calls’ rolled under stylised close-ups of pencils and paint splashes at work, I had the immediate impression that I need not worry about schmaltz, that I was in good hands; something about the tone and the aesthetic reassured me. A friend said the trailer made this look like something between ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (which I need to see again because something about it left me unconvinced) and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (which I love), and this isn’t a bad summary. It’s like Terence Davies filtered through Guillermo del Toro, just to give a sense of its equal dour English melancholia and faith in the fantastical. The trailer seemed to imply to me more unleashing-of-the-Id, but it’s something more nuanced than that and not nearly as hampered by triumphantism as I anticipated.
IMDB synopsises like this: “A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother’s terminal illness.” And that is fine, but it doesn’t convey the loneliness and alienation it conveys beneath its gee-whizz monster effects and animated digressions. Beneath these flourishes – elegant and vivid but always playing second-fiddle to the emotional content – it’s a sad tale of a boy struggling to cope with his emotions at the worst of times. Boyona allows the monster – voiced by Liam Neesan to rattle those bass levels – to be both scary and liberating without quite leaning too heavily on either side (even if you might think of ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’s Groot). He’s an intimidating ally, frequently boiling from the inside one moment, encouraging Conor like a bad influence then being steely but empathic at others. He's a typical embodiment of children's affection for and fear of humungous monsters. As such a manifestation the monster is less a denial of reality, as with ‘Pan Labyrinth’, and more an extension of the boy’s imagination as in ‘Penda’s Fenn’ or Bernard Rose's 'Paperhouse'. It’s well-trodden ground but it’s still valid.* It is, as Tim Robey says, “…a film which keeps devising ever-more-epic collisions between an angry boy and his own sorrow.”
The performances are uniformly strong and nuanced and the message that people like all things are ambiguous, that they might not be what they seem. is strong. Such ambiguity and complexity carries over to other details such as when Conor’s mum tells him that it’s all right if he’s too angry to talk to her, or the refrain that punishment would be no use for Conor, or in the hints of guilt crossing the bully’s face, or in Conor’s dad’s (Toby Kebbell) trying to overcome the dad-that-left baggage.
Lewis Macdougall as Conor is more than capable of carrying the whole film without grandstanding, as dominated as everything is by his alienation, but be prepared to be truly heartbroken when he finally has “the talk” with his mum. For this moment alone one could see why he was cast. Boyona knows not to spoil this with a score that tells you to be sad, just as the final revelation is silent, and this allows real heartbreak to come through. The whole film brims with respect for the conflicts and feelings of its young protagonist and this is its genuine triumph. Perhaps its saddest revelation is that for all the fireworks and vivid creativity of his internal life, the loss that Conor is experiencing is rendered as starkly mundane and ordinary. It is a true verdantly conceived weepy, then, and earns it.
• It reminded me that as a boy in bed, I used to image giants were outside my house walking up and down and I was nervous that they would look in and see me trying to sleep.