Director: J. A. Bayonara
Screenplay: Patrick Ness
Based on the story by: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
Country: UK & USA
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 104 mins
“How does the story begin?”
“It begins like so many stories: with a boy, too old to be a kid, too young to be a man. And a nightmare.”
Viewers now in their twenties may recall a film from 2007 called Bridge To Terabithia. Bridge To Terabithia was marketed as a kid’s film, and starred two children on the brink of adulthood who imagine a fantasy land in the forest as a method of escapism. Halfway through the film, one of the leads dies in a tragic and senseless accident. For the rest of the film, we watch the remaining protagonist struggle with grief and misery which, unlike the fantasy land, is brutally real.
Like Bridge To Terabithia, A Monster Calls stars a twelve year old boy who struggles to endure grief, guilt and anger. It is a beautifully made film which explores loss in a sensitive and realistic way, with a fantastic screenplay and a deeply emotional score. However, like Bridge To Terabithia, its marketing confuses its audience, who could easily believe from the trailer that this is a fantastical family film about a boy having adventures. A Monster Calls is not those things. If you watch this movie, prepare to be devastated.
Having grown up reading Patrick Ness, I should have known what I was getting into. Ness’s books are critically acclaimed for a reason; often deceptively simple in concept, they portray human relationships and experiences with excruciating accuracy. In the screenplay too, Ness’s writing is startlingly beautiful, perfectly capturing protagonist Conor’s emotions as he navigates his mother’s terminal illness.
One thing I’ve always loved about Ness is his refusal to underestimate children. While I was thrown by the intensely serious nature of the film – okay, I cried through most of it – I can see how it could be a lifeline for young people who are struggling with similar situations. Conor is never infantilised by the narrative. His emotions and reactions are always taken seriously, and portrayed as just as complex as the adults in his life.
The cinematography in this film is as grown up as its themes. Soft colours and gentle transitions paint a world of beauty, despite its tragedy. Conor’s love of drawing with charcoal and inks bleeds into the rest of the film too, all earthy browns and blues. Of course, the animated sequences stand out; the colours and artistic styles are mesmerising to watch. All together the film is like a fairytale itself, with all of the mystery, beauty, and real life implications of a dark but romantic folk tale. It holds together perfectly; there are no loose ends, and each strand of the narrative reaches a satisfying, if heart-wrenching, conclusion.
The score stands out too, moulding the emotions of the film throughout. Although the music is gorgeous, it was a little much at times. I found myself feeling manipulated on a number of occasions where I felt the scenes were affecting enough by themselves. There were also moments where the dialogue felt a little heavy-handed – do we really need to be told outright that “sometimes there isn’t a bad guy”? On these occasions I felt confused at the audience they were targeting – for young viewers that would probably be fine, but for adults those moments break the flow a little, as if reminding us that this is supposedly for children (even though we know it’s clearly for us too).
Maybe this is pretentious, but in my opinion A Monster Calls is a piece of cinematic art. It portrays the conflict of grief and guilt with unusual clarity, weaving together fantasy and reality to produce an object of deep emotional intelligence. Its marketing may be confused, and its target audience may be uncertain, but ultimately this could be a film for everyone. Make sure you’re prepared for heartbreak, though. I wouldn’t want to Terabithia anyone.
A Monster Calls is available now on Digital Download, Blu-Ray and DVD. Special features include deleted scenes, two Making Of featurettes (‘The Making of A Monster Calls’, ‘Making of The Tales’), and commentary with Patrick Ness.