The closest I’ve come to being overcome with grief was when one of my granddads died 10 years ago. He was about 76 but I reckon he had a good ten years left in him given the surprising circumstances. His passing didn’t hurt though. Yes, I was sad but life went on smoothly. One day he was there and the next he wasn’t and it was simply the matter of the funeral which, in classic Ghanaian fashion, came months later.
The full force of grief isn’t anything one wishes for. With each passing year where I get to say happy birthday Ma or Pa, I guess the levels of potential grief lessen. Maybe when I say my final goodbye when they are 80-plus, it’ll be a warm feeling inside, at least I hope. Much like the average human, I just want to avoid the pain. Because of the power of cinema, because of films like A Monster Calls, I have an inkling of what that pain could feel like. Nothing like a deeply moving fable about loss and grief to leave you crying yourself to sleep.
Such was the powerful pull of A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona, in its magical realism splendour that I found myself reaching for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth as I processed things. Feel free to yell blasphemy, I won’t hold it against you. But as the story unravelled, I felt myself slowly being immersed and disarmed by the story, making me ripe for the bundle of painful pathos that awaited, unlike Del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece which offers enthralling wonder and pure bliss (though subsequent viewings appeal to my more cynical side). Again, like Pan’s Labyrinth, Bayona’s film works as an Ananse story made for children whilst fully operating in the idea of cinema being a machine for empathy.
A Monster Calls, based on a novel by and scripted by Patrick Ness, narrows in on a humble British household with a cauldron of emotion bubbling beneath the surface. We meet our reticent protagonist, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and his single mother played by Felicity Jones, who I realised was not named in the film (but is called Lizzie). There is a rather soothing view of a nearby cemetery from their home that sets the tone for the idea of death lurking nearby. It’s definitely and odd place of abode and this peculiarity extends to our central character, who tends drift into his own realm.
Conor is a brilliant artist and his bedroom is draped with sketches drawn from a mind that longs for a reality anchored in the fantasy birthed by story books. There is an early scene where he watches the 1933 King Kong with his mother and his affinity to this monstrous ape on the New York Empire state building is clear. Later that night, he dreams that the massive tree that overlooks the nearby cemetery comes to life and saunters to his window like an elk approaching a hobbit. With a closer look at the monster, you realise it’s a more terrifying, almost hellish figure than expected with red hot embers running through its innards.
Voiced formidably by no other than Liam Neeson, the monster comes to Conor with a bit of a proposition: It offers to tell the young boy three stories and once done, it will demand a story from Conor, a story embodying a truth that only Conor could convey. We have a feeling this truth will have something to do with the domestic strain Conor is under. His mother is very ill, jumping from treatment to treatment. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in Los Angeles but shows up, seemingly accentuating Conor’s hurt of not having a present father. Then there is Conor’s grandmother played by (Sigourney Weaver (God bless her and her British accent) who sucks the little fun out of a room with her strict cadence.
The monster helps Conor come to terms with his relationships with these family members, and indeed himself. Not to get into details, but the stories are basically deft parables told with fine story book-like animations that are anchored in paradox. As a coming of age tale in parts, A Monster Calls also outlines how a young boy becomes aware of and contends with the grey areas life burdens him with. Conor’s truth lies at the heart of these grey areas but he remains fiercely opposed to traversing this land.
The internal bruisings and wranglings are projected very well by the script and MacDougall’s strong showing. But we get some surface tension in some school sequences which involve a lot of bullying and physical bruises. They could have been left on the cutting floor. Every other part of the film seems to tie in with the cross Conor bears but the school sequences seem like cliches you wedge into a troubled child narrative. Admittedly these moments in the school service Conor as a character but don’t do much for the overall theme. Some kids just get bullied, regardless of rosy or not home is.
But A Monster Calls’ emotional peak soon comes along with Conor’s truth, reminding us that the script reaches some brilliant heights. It’s an affecting denouement that pulls at the heart strings in how surprising it is in its frankness considering the central character in question. The provocative finale puts the rest of the film in even more painful perspective and the link between Conor and his grandma also gives us something to muse on given their standing on either side of familial hurt. Some understated moments between them remind us that the compassion we as an audience are ready to dish out must go beyond young Conor.
On a technical level, the Bayona and his DP, Óscar Faura, nail the aesthetic, with a lot of dim lighting and grey skies to accentuate the bleak sombre aura. For the tree monster, I was pleasantly surprised to notice some practical effects, but the monster is mostly animated with primordial motion capture work and you almost want to reach in and stroke its rough bark as it becomes less antagonistic and more of a sage. Like most Ananse stories, there is a lesson for young Conor at the end of the monster’s tales, even though I wonder if actual kid Conor’s age will be able to process.
Ignore my Blashpeming Pan’s Labyrinth beats. A Monster Calls lingers as overly sentimental to a fault and that’s fine. But don’t forget the compelling ride we take as it taps into a universal emotion most of us have wondered about, and even felt, as it rumbles to its inevitable tear jerking denouement, conveying a certain childhood melancholia I was thankful experienced.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana