‘A Monster Calls’ is a beautiful, heart wrenching tale that could possibly be the best film of the year… and it’s only the start of January.
I hate the overuse of the word ‘masterpiece’ in modern society, yet after a year of over promise and under achieving, 2017 has started off with something that’s damn close. It’s a film that’s beautiful in every respect; from the the fantastically rendered Monster to the cleverly animated watercolours, from the bitterly real performances to the bittersweet message, it’s a film that will leave an impression… unless you’re a heartless monster in which case maybe give it a miss?
The film follows Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) a young boy who’s attempting to come to terms with his Mother’s terminal illness. At 12:07 he’s visited by a mysterious Monster (Liam Neeson) who vows to tell him three stories before Connor must tell him one in return. Connor’s life slowly spirals out of control as his Mother’s treatment stops working, he continues to get bullied at school and he has to deal with his formidable Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) all while trying to decrypt the Monster’s tales.
I feel like the films trailers don’t do justice to what this film is saying or the story it’s telling. From the trailers it would be understandable to think that this is a film aimed at children, with it’s young protagonist and fantastical elements, but the truth is that the extreme rawness of emotion in the last third might be too real for younger children. Yet that being said, there’s definitely messages that children and adults alike can take from this film about loss, grieving and dealing with your thoughts around a time of loss.
The first segment introduces us to Connor’s life in his small countryside town where he lives alone with his Mother, Lizzie O’Malley (Felicity Jones). Liam Neeson’s voiceover stating that Connor is ‘too old to me a child but too young to be a man’ is very poignant throughout this film. Connor makes his own breakfast, washes his own clothes and takes himself off to school. We see the incredible bond that Connor and Lizzie have as a Mother and son who have been through the hardest of situations together. We see the love and the similarities between them. It’s a bond that the film rests on. We’re also introduced to Lizzie’s Mother, someone who initially comes across as a stern and unsympathetic woman becomes a character with much more subtly and complexity as the film moves along. As this is Connor’s story it’s easy to forget that her daughter is dying long before her time and she, like Connor, is finding it impossible to process.
So, what about the Monster? As he tries to escape from the pain of his life, Connor immerses himself into his own imagination and his drawing. Then comes forth the Monster. Stunningly animated, the old Yew tree of the Church next door comes alive at exactly 12:07. Brilliantly voiced by the ever consistent Liam Neeson, he has come to tell Connor three tales from his life, tales that Connor at first does not understand the relevance of. These stories are fantastically animated like a watercolour painting. They’re, on the surface, quite simple fables but there’s always a twist that alters the perspective. As an adult hearing the tales you’ll be enjoying the animations but maybe thinking that the message to this story is all quiet obvious. However the change in perspective steers them away from being over the top sentimental and preachy. It’s interesting that the purpose of these stories isn’t clear at first and, like Connor, we have to piece it together.
That is what this film does brilliantly. It puts you into the world of Connor, things are shown from his perspective, revelations come as he gets to them. Whether it’s the strained relationship with his Grandma, the complex situation with his Father (Toby Kibbell) or being bullied at school, it’s through Connor’s eyes that we see this world. If there is a slightly fault to this film it’s some of the scenes between Connor and his Father or when he’s at school. They definitely help craft the film and his situation and none of it feels over the top or staged for the purpose of drama, it’s just at times the scenes move a little to quickly and could do with a few more pauses and breaths. However there’s so much groundwork and development that has to be assigned to dealing with his Mother’s illness and the changing relationship with his Grandma that you understand why this has happened.
And you won’t be thinking about these small faults at the end of the film. The last third is so raw and powerful that it can be difficult to watch and absorb at times. (I have a thought on why this is so, it might contain some spoilers so I’ll add it to the end of the article for anyone that’s interested.*) It’s so amazingly well done and the performances from MacDougall, Jones and Weaver are incredible. MacDougall especially gives a sensational performance and I don’t just mean it’s a great performance for a child, I mean it’ sensational performance for anyone. According to wikipedia, MacDougall lost his own Mother in 2013, shortly before shooting A Monster Calls and you can see a real young boys emotion on screen. If he doesn’t receive huge praise and award nominations for this performance it’s a crime.
There isn’t much more than can be said about the end of this film without ruining it. It brings everything together wonderfully and there’s some great Easter eggs for eagle-eyed viewers. The end is so powerful and emotional and heartbreaking. It’s beautifully directed and acted. That being said, I think there’s something more to take from this film than just life is hard and depressing. Things will get better.
‘A Monster Calls’ is, despite having fantasy elements, one of the most real explorations of grief, dealing with loss and escapism that I’ve ever seen. So much of this film resinated with me. It will take something special to knock it off the top spot.
*So if you’ve seen the film, (or aren’t too fussed about spoilers), you’ll remember that the story the Monster wants Connor to tell him is the ‘truth’. After a sensational sequence Connor screams that he wants it to all be over, he want his mum to let go so that it’s all over, a truth that he is incredible ashamed of. As this film puts us into Connor’s world and shows us everything from his perspective, I believe that the end of this film is purposefully difficult to watch so that we, like Connor, also want it to end. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t unwatchable and I wouldn’t describe it as unpleasant but part of you will be wanting Connor’s and his Mums suffering to finish quickly as it is so heart wrenching.