Picture the scene. It’s the end of a press screening for A Monster Calls in one of the biggest cinemas in London – and all you can hear from the assembled critics is a chorus of sniffles.
Patrick Ness’s much loved children’s novel has been adapted for the screen by the author, so its many fans can expect something faithful to the original. Which leaves those who’ve never read it to emerge from the cinema, teary eyed and in bits.
Young Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a hard time: at school he’s bullied, while at home he’s having to cope with his mother’s treatment for cancer – and the constant fear that she might die. He’s visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who initially appears menacing and destructive. But he has another, quite different purpose – to help the boy deal with his problems and actually confront them.
And that’s what the film is all about – looking problems in the face and being honest about them. Difficult enough for adults, but here the focus is an eleven year old overwhelmed by potentially life shattering and life changing events. Yet he can’t escape them, or his feelings towards them, and the film’s approach is to be honest about both. That doesn’t mean harsh or brutal or, indeed, patronising, but as truthful as possible with the child and allowing them to be honest with themselves. It still applies when it’s a truth they can’t admit to, one that riddles them with guilt. Which is where Conor finds himself.
Director J A Bayona walks an extraordinary tightrope and does it with unerring confidence, delivering a child’s film for grown-ups and a grown-up’s film for children, one and both at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that makes you shake your head in wonderment. It will – and out come those tissues again – break your heart, especially if you’ve experienced any of what Conor is going through. Because part of its power lies in its uncomfortable ability to get right underneath your skin, find those sensitive memories you thought you’d buried long ago and give them a penetrating scratch.
There’s a decidedly Dickensian feel to the narrative. When the tree monster arrives, he says he’ll tell Conor three stories, all designed to teach him something. Think A Christmas Carol. And the boy’s recurring dream, involving a crumbling church, harks back to the graveyard in David Lean’s version of Great Expectations with its creaking trees and glowering skies. While the stories are told by the monster, we watch them in a combination of watercolours and animation, the link being that Conor is a talented artist and they are painted in his style. Given some of the big, gothic spectacle in the film, their delicacy and softness make a beautiful contrast.
The performances are of an equally high standard, with 14 year old Lewis MacDougall walking away with the film, full of bottled up anger, guilt and sadness and cutting a poignantly solitary figure for most of the film. He was in Joe Wright’s spectacularly ill-judged Pan last year, but he’s very much back in the spotlight with this remarkably mature piece of acting. Sigourney Weaver’s casting as his grandmother is more problematic as it smacks of a gesture towards the American box office. It’s a striking change of appearance for her, drained of nearly all colour, with grey hair and subdued clothes and, true professional that she is, she’s good in the role. But so many British actresses could have done it at least as well. Home-grown Felicity Jones is on her way to becoming a box office draw – after Rogue One:A Star Wars Story, it can’t be long – but she gives another finely tuned performance as Conor’s mum, courageous but never cloying as she fades in front of our eyes.
A Monster Calls takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, so be careful who you take with you to see it. It hits the target with such devastating accuracy that anybody going through similar experiences will find it hard, if not impossible, to handle. Conor’s outlook isn’t great. His world, both in reality and in his imagination, is gothic and cruel. Yet, in the tree monster’s eyes, there’s just a glimpse of the light and the hope that we’re all looking for.
A Monster Calls is in UK cinemas from New Years Day.