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January 2017 | Charlotte Gajek

Charlotte Gajek reviews our Film of the Month - A Monster Calls.

Telling a story of profound loss through the eyes of a child can be a powerful thing. It approaches the source of grief from a unique standpoint, often more innocent, but also less fraught with denial and sugarcoating. Sadness is rarely more powerful when experienced by a child and J.A. Bayona’s new film A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness, manages to convey just that.

Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) struggles to come to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. Frustrated at his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) meddling and his estranged father’s incompetence, he encounters a Monster (Liam Neeson) who visits him at exactly 12:07, to tell him stories. Initially Conor believes he has no use for them, especially as they seem like fairytales but slight twists in the tales, to show that pure good and pure evil rarely exist, draw him in, drawing parallels to his own life.

These stories are told through beautifully rendered watercolours that weep across the screen. Instead of jarring, the switch between aesthetics feels effortless.

Young Lewis MacDougall, pierces everybody from under his lashes with a deadly stare, as he struggles with his emotional outpours as his mother’s condition worsens. He manages to portray a boy you both pity greatly and are a little unsettled by. The same thing can be said for the Monster. It is well animated, thousands of roots and branches growing out of it, raking themselves around teacups and houses in a visceral manner, as he tells Conor his stories. It is both comforting and terrifying, the exceptional sound design both for its movements and its voice creating a thoroughly mesmerising experience.

From the very beginning of the film it is clear that this is a story of loss and frustration and Bayona manages to tell it without trying to be manipulative. We can sense the sadness without being drowned by it. When the end finally comes the movie is at its strongest, featuring some of the most devastating dialogue about the loss of loved ones in recent cinema: simple, to the point, brutally honest.

It is not a perfect film. Sometimes the interweaving developments of Conor’s real life, his mother’s illness, and his interactions with the Monster don’t work as seamlessly as they ought to, and while the emotions feel true and devastating, helped by the dreary English countryside setting, it somehow cannot match Bayona’s earlier family drama The Impossible, about a family’s personal tragedy during the Thailand tsunami. Set in a beautiful country, even amid the scene of destruction, bathed in a warm light, it still managed to portray the unbearable fight for survival and human endurance in a way that seems more memorable.

Bayona is at his best when he focuses on the single characters and his emotional turmoil. A Monster Calls in peppered with beautifully shot close ups, as he proves once again that he is exceptional at helping young actors deliver breathtaking performances with which many professionally trained adults would easily struggle.

Bayona is set to helm the next instalment of Jurassic World, seemingly straying very far outside his proven comfort zone. But if he manages to infuse the human characters in that film, or the dinosaurs, with an ounce of the emotional truth that he manages to elicit from his young actors in dramas, then it’ll be a sight to see.

All imagery courtesy of Entertainment One UK.

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