12A – 108mins – 2017
A CONOR CAROL
For a twelve-year-old, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) has a lot on his plate: his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America with his new family; his mother (Felicity Rogue One Jones) is terminally ill, leaving Conor to look after her almost as much as she looks after him; his aloofly strict grandmother (Sigourney Finding Dory Weaver) is threatening to take him away to live in her archaic abode. If all of that wasn’t enough, Conor also has to deal with regular beatings from school bully Harry (James Melville).
Plagued by recurring nightmares, it is no surprise that Conor loses himself in his love of art, a skill cultivated by his creative mother. One night at 12:07am, while he is sketching his mother’s favourite yew tree, Conor is visited by a destructive tree-like Monster (Liam Neeson) who promises – much like Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ classic festive frightener – that on his next three visits he will divulge three tales to the boy, after which Conor must divulge his own tale to the monster: the truth behind his haunting night terrors.
Directed by Spanish helmer J.A. Bayona (who has since been handed the keys to Jurassic World 2) from a script by the BBC’s Class showrunner Patrick Ness, adapted from his own 2011 YA novel (which Siobhan Dowd is credited as having conceived the idea for), A Monsters Calls is a most sublime and multidimensional creature; dark yet delicious, tragic yet heartwarming, fantastical yet profoundly genuine.
The three allegorical tales the Monster spins are animated in uniquely creative yet equally gorgeous illustrative styles, while the trunk-shaped mentor is meticulously brought to live in CG, further blurring the barrier between dream and reality. But it is the savage-yet-engaging performances which really provide this powerful drama with its backbone. From repressed to raging, MacDougall has heartbreaking range as the strong-willed but struggling youth, while Inferno star Jones is hauntingly credible as his ailing ma.
Indeed, despite her death being all-but-foretold at the opening of the film, come the silent end credits I could still hear audience members sobbing, so overwhelming and heartfelt is the tragic portrayal. Elsewhere, Weaver is (superficially) ruthless as Conor’s steely grandmother (the Scrooge of this Christmas Carol), while Neeson’s deep and gravelly vocals are a perfectly obscure blend of cruel and protective as the ambiguous storytelling sage.
Having been as awestruck as I was following his cinema trip, 80s Picture House co-host Thom Downie pointed out to me this morning that despite winning rave reviews from critics and viewers alike, A Monster Calls has – so far – failed to win much awards season recognition yet. Of course it is still early days, but it will be a tragedy if Bayona’s sincere and earnest Hollywood breakout fails to garner the industry acknowledgement it so richly deserves. Bring tissues, but you’d bark-ing mad to miss this significant gem.
CR@B’s Claw Score: