A Monster Calls is partly about a fantasy monster, and mostly about a real one – cancer. Growing up in England, Conor O’Malley is forced to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. To help his mother, he summons a monster of his own.
Much of the film is set in the darkness, at dusk or late into the night. At one point, a scene takes place in a car, just two characters sitting and talking, while rain streams down the windows. It’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinematography you could ever hope to see: the lighting of the rain turns it to paint, and as it frames the characters, the scene is caught half-way between live-action and animation. This mixing is deliberate and often: with the story as his canvas, director J A Bayona paints a delicate balance of real, surreal and outright fantasy. There are beautiful colours and gloomy, textured shadows, all framed with the utmost care. Elsewhere there is proper 2D animation, and literal mixing of ink on a page. For a film in which art is a major motif, it manages to be a dazzling example itself.
The mixing extends beyond the cinematography to the narrative. A Monster Calls is based on a children’s novel, with both book and screenplay credited to Patrick Ness. The film therefore tries to balance its duty to its younger fans and its desire to bring out the seriousness of its themes. The result here is not entirely successful: children will struggle with the exceedingly sombre tone and steady pace, while adults may lament the lack of subtlety or complexity. (One of the themes is that people are complex, but that’s not quite the same as having a complex theme.)
Indeed, whilst the subject matter is deeply moving, it can also feel gratingly on-the-nose, especially given that it’s delivered mostly in heavy-handed speeches (generally quite literally, given the presence of a massive tree monster). You can’t help but feel that quieter scenes would have sufficed, but then again, children unfamiliar with the source material may have been left baffled and bored. It’s a challenge for younger children anyway (as evidenced by the one sitting in front of me in the cinema). It’s a coming-of-age film about cancer. About how to deal with pain and death and grief. About who suffers most when a loved one dies.
And it’s about something else too. Something more interesting and less explored that only identifies itself in the final act of the film (so far be it from me to identify it now). Something that elevates the film’s narrative but also its thematic reach. Something ugly and painful and deeply true. And though the film still can’t manage subtle, it is finally profound, and sold wonderfully by its lead actors. Lewis MacDougall is excellent in a role that would be challenging for a seasoned actor, let alone a 13-year-old boy in his second film. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver provide able support (with Weaver getting just close enough to the English accent to stop it being distracting), and Liam Neeson imbues the monster with a gravitas that feels authentic and never hammy.
There are sub-plots that aren’t developed enough (a symptom of most book-to-film adaptations), while some dialogue that may have worked on the page feels out-of-place on screen. You may even feel somewhat manipulated, as if the emotion the film wrings from you has been calculated all too precisely. None of which can deny that the film is exceedingly good at what it sets out to do. It’s visually stunning and constructed with love. More than that, it’s an achingly honest reflection on death, rooted in truths we all have to endure and, in the end, nothing short of heart-breaking.