Film: A Monster Calls
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell & the voice of Liam Neeson
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Adapted from the children’s book of the same name by Patrick Ness, who also penned the screenplay, this darkly splendid, beautifully framed coming-of-age story spotlights the aches and pains of childhood.
Like the Princess Scheherazade who had to spin a thousand tales to stay alive, young Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who is “too old to be a kid, yet too young to be a man” has to make up a story that will make a quartet of the three told by an ancient yew in the idyllic churchyard, a stone’s throw from the lad’s home.
“You must tell the truth”, the red-eyed, gnarled tree “monster”(voiced by Liam Neeson) tells him in surreal dreams/nightmares. Dreams are said to be a manifestation of our deepest anxieties and Conor has a dream which keeps recurring: he sees himself clinging to the hand of his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) who is suspended over a bottomless pit during a quake.
In the stark light of day, we see Lizzie dying of a terminal illness, Conor is mercilessly bullied at school, while his (divorced) father (Toby Kebbell) has made a new home in America with a new family. And Conor dreads the prospect of living with his strict maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
Beautifully animated in a water-colour palette, the fables, the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor on three successive nights, are grim even as they relate to his problems. For Conor, like countless children in real life, must grapple with the impending loss of a parent, deal with the mindless cruelty of peers and overcome the anxiety and terror of being rendered an orphan.
Where reel characters like the grandmother and teacher only see an wilfully destructive boy, the viewer can commiserate with an anguished child who is afraid his small world is falling apart. It goes without saying, the connections between the dream tales and the boy’s life are obvious.
The tree-monster’s stories are populated by characters who take self-serving decisions. But the Monster is non-judgemental. He may go on a rampage in beautiful rural England but he refuses to “punish” those who he says are neither good nor bad. “Most people are somewhere in between.” How so? Your reviewer has a problem with this. Still, the stories reflect dark truths we are afraid to acknowledge. The monster also stands for those who want to teach, not destroy (students).
As the boy who eventually realises this, Lewis MacDougall holds his own in a stellar cast of award winning adults. Director Bayona and writer Ness know how to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings in telling us much like Ian McEwan in Atonement, that wise stories are lamps to guide us through the dark and stormy nights of life. Lest we forget, Liam Neeson himself has suffered tremendously from the loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson.