Review: A Monster Calls (2017)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the book “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness (here), from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd. Yesterday, I went to see the movie. I couldn’t recommend the book enough, and I now want to add the film to the “can’t recommend enough”. Seriously, read it, and watch it, and weep.

My review of this film is also being posted in my university newspaper, the Redbrick so I’ll tag that here so no-one can accuse me of plagiarising my own work or something crazy like that.

The Review Itself

Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougal) has more to deal with than most. His mother (Felicity Jones) has cancer. His father (Toby Kebbel) lives in America with his new wife and baby. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t understand him, and keeps pressuring him to understand his mothers fate. Every night he had The Nightmare. And one night, The Monster (Liam Neeson) comes walking.

Written by Patrick Ness and directed by J.A.Bayona, a Spanish director noted for his “visual flair”, this film weaves together the real world, and the fantastical into a harrowing and intense experience.

This is a tale about a boy, a boy angry at the world, worried about his mother. A boy who is still a child, but has been forced into the contradictory role of a man. His only ally in the world is the old yew tree, that rises into a giant monster at precisely 12:07. He isn’t afraid of the monster. He hasn’t got the time for stories.

As his mother steadily deteriorates, and Connor’s ability to control his temper deteriorates with it, the Monster becomes his ally, the one person in the world who understands. The Monster tells him three stories. And in return, he wants The Truth of Connor’s nightmare.

The themes of grief and prolonged suffering, of hope and pain and anger, they are painfully realistic and beautifully realised by the fantastic cast. An already powerful book by Patrick Ness, the film adaptation of A Monster Calls is even more powerful, even more heart-wrenching. It is impossible not to cry as his mother promises she will get better, that the next medicine will work, knowing Connor doesn’t believe her no matter how much he wants too. The relationship with his grandma, her watching her only daughter die in front of her, and not knowing how to help her angry, determined grandson, is painfully realistic.

Lewis MacDougal did a fantastic job of portraying Connor, the awkward teenage years amplified under the pressure of his mothers illness, and the relationship between Connor and his mother (Another excellent performance from Felicity Jones) will have you sobbing. The characters are destructive, they are real, they are angry and hurt and they break things. It is a fascinating diversion from the usual story-telling techniques: the family are not victims, they are fighters. They keep fighting for his mother to get better. They don’t wait idly for the illness to claim her. It is powerful and intense and oh-so emotional.

Fantastically artistic, the stories are splashes of watercolour against the drab reality. It could be a metaphor for how he deals with the pressure of his life as a young carer, he draws and paints, but they add a magical, mythical element to the Monster’s complex and morally grey stories. The monster is born from the tree, in a delightfully gothic and suspense filled moment of wonderful cinematography, as his limbs crack into being, unfurling from the great yew tree by the church.

Some reviews have said that this is not a children’s film. But I disagree, it is a film for everyone. It shows the resilience of young carers, of children forced to grow up and care for a relative. It shows the processing and acceptance of death and grief through the eyes of a child. It is powerful and it is harrowing, and I sobbed for a good portion of the movie. But just because it deals with death, that doesn’t mean it isn’t suitable for children. Children are much tougher than adults give them credit for.

What makes this so good is how real it is for some people. This movie resonated on a personal level for me, and I suspect it will with anyone who has ever had to grow up too soon, who has faced loss, grief, pain.

This is a harrowing and emotional journey of acceptance, loss, pain, grief and anger. It is intense, it is emotional, it is gothic and it is fantastical. But the feelings are very real. Take tissues and be prepared to weep. If I were the sort to give ratings, I would be giving it five stars without a second thought.

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