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Review: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls

It was 9 am in the morning last October when I saw A Monster Calls at the BFI London Film Festival’s press screening and despite the early rise and long commute had me not exactly at my freshest, it only took the opening sequence to shake me up and keep me engaged for the following 2 hours.

Just like Conor O’Malley – our 12-year-old protagonist – wakes up from a horrible nightmare where he’s holding on for dear life to avoid precipitating into the void of a dark and bottomless grave, I was clenching my hands onto the seat’s armrests, sensing I was in for a rollercoaster destined to not hold back any emotional punches.

At his third feature film after his breakthrough horror debut The Orphanage (2007) and the thrilling family drama based on real events, The Impossible (2012), it’s no surprise that Barcelona-native filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona was the right choice to helm this screen adaptation of Patrick Ness’ bestselling novel of the same name.

Ness himself has penned the script based upon the novel he wrote from an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, and given the story’s main theme of coming to terms with the looming and ineluctable menace of death, the whole project is charged with an even deeper emotional impact, due to Dowd’s premature passing before being able to start writing the novel. There’s no doubt though – she would be proud not just of Ness’ remarkable literary work but also of Bayona’s translation for the screen.

A Monster Calls follows a young boy in rural England, Conor O’Malley (brilliant newcomer Lewis MacDougall), having a hard time coping with his young mother’s terminal disease. As if that burden wasn’t enough, Conor is the victim of constant bullying at school and doesn’t have any friends, his father lives across the pond where he started a new life and last but not least, his intimidating grandmother is moving in to help out in such harrowing times.

Lonely, misunderstood and angry at the world, Conor’s only escape from such bleakness is a vivid imagination and a passion for drawing. When he combines these two powerful forces and sketches the huge, imposing tree outside the village church in the form of a monster, the creature he has made up comes to life, or at least that’s what it looks like. The monster, hauntingly voiced and performed in motion capture by Liam Neeson shows up every night at the same time, just after midnight, at first leaving the boy speechless and incredulous but slowly becoming the only distraction and comfort from the heart-wrenching reality he’s going through.

Conor is confused as to why the creature is after him – though apparently it’s all about three mysterious stories the monster has to tell and then one he has to listen from Conor. The boy won’t get rid of it until the monster hears Conor speak his own truth but that only makes our protagonist more puzzled and as the situation at home spirals down, he only grows weary of the monster’s cryptic games.

Dipped in a dark fantasy with the gothic atmosphere worthy of vintage Tim Burton and the imaginative magic realism of the best Guillermo Del Toro, A Monster Calls is bound to leave you with a lump in your throat but not for the reasons you might think of and dread when it comes to this kind of stories. Yes, this is a tearjerker of a family drama but it’s not manipulative of the audience’s emotions. On the contrary, if anything, it’s a powerful and realistic exploration of grief and of the utmost, deepest fears we have to face when dealing with such a horrible reality – something that unfortunately, sooner or later, one way or another, we are meant to experience.

Bayona does a masterful job at balancing out the various ingredients at hand, and not just when it comes to the visual palette of the film. He certainly made the right choice combining CGI with practical effects in order to design and create the spectacular monster. But all of that wouldn’t matter much if he hadn’t picked the right cast and hadn’t directed them with the sensibility required by the material.

Neeson literally gives life to the creature with incredible vividness and his work is perfectly complemented by the young Scottish actor playing Conor, whose nuanced introspection and energy remind us of a young Jack O’Connell. Felicity Jones once again is raw and heartbreaking, confirming her turns in Like Crazy (2011) and The Theory Of Everything (2014) weren’t just a fluke. Last but not least, the legendary Sigourney Weaver at her first grandma role brings depth and a level of humanity that will melt your hearts.

There’s no denying J.A. Bayona has become one of the hottest names in Hollywood’s A-list of filmmakers and we couldn’t be more excited that the next project he is set to direct is the Jurassic World sequel. With him at the helm it’s sure the franchise will deliver a new installment that promises to be equally spectacular and emotionally engaging.

A Monster Calls is in UK cinemas now

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