A Monster Calls sees J.A. Bayona make a leap from a highly intriguing European voice on the margins of the directing elite to a man who can rub shoulders with the best filmmakers working today. It is an extraordinary film which sees him perfect the combination of wonderful visuals and deeply emotive work which went a little sideways on his last project The Impossible, a film which wrung the emotion a little too nakedly for my taste.
In theory, A Monster Calls could go wrong very easily with a very Pan’s Labyrinth feel to the set up of a boy interacting with a “is he friend/foe?” creature who needs to teach the adolescent some home truths in a fantastical way. The key here is that as with Pan’s what that is turns out to be a complex and altogether far more human idea than you may expect, a look at grief in one of its mostharrowing forms. To say more than that would be to spoil things however.
Unlike a film like Gus Van Sant’s grief porn disaster The Sea of Trees, this doesn’t seek to turn death into a plot twist, instead we focus on a young boy who is unable to process his emotions and how this in turn affects his relationships with those around him, be it absentee father, cold grandmother or psychologically devilish bully. Lewis Macdougall is frankly extraordinary as Conor, a performance which is all the more upsetting for just how good he is in the lead role, at times some of his reactions caused laughter in my audience however I feel this is more a result of the open wounds of the film’s core making people feel uncomfortable. By the final act however you could hear a pin drop.
Even elements which don’t quite feel right early on add up by the end. Sigourney Weaver feels stilted with an English accent which feels calculated to seem a little off, our view of her being coloured further after already not being in great shape thanks to her early interactions with Conor, however by the end it all makes sense. Felicity Jones doesn’t get much to do however a scene towards the end palpably works thanks to her strength as a performer and Liam Neeson plays into the ambiguity of the Monster perfectly.
Bayona marshalls all this together with great skill with the film also taking in a focus on watercolour art which leads to some stunning sequences as visuals and storytelling come together with synchronicity which rarely works as well here.
A Monster Calls is an insanely human film and may be too much for some. It is an extraordinary piece of work which I very much hope is not drowned out in the Awards Season avalanche of “worthy” fare. It’s one of the best films of the year and one which will remain with me for a good deal of time to come.