Dir: J. A. Bayona
Starr: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 7)
NOTE: This review contains potential spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. Preferably on as big a screen as possible, as it is visually sumptuous.
J. A. Bayona’s impressive visual rendering of a grief-stricken adolescence does justice to Patrick Ness’ best-selling children’s novel, however, I worry whether it will struggle to find an audience if marketed as a kid’s festive flick.
The Catalan director has never really failed to impress me and yet it is only with this latest release that I have come to acknowledge that fact. The Orphanage (2007) seemed on first viewing to be a rather slender ghost story, but repeat viewings since then have deepened my appreciation of its painstaking approach to the intense trauma of loss. The Impossible (2012) was an unjustly ignored disaster movie that really got inside the psychology of survival. With A Monster Calls Bayona has created an oddly bruising kitchen sink fairytale about how an adolescent might distil the pain and trauma of a loved one’s impending death. It is an adaptation that knows its cinematic lineage very well.
Conor is a young boy, on the cusp of his troubling teens, who is having to come to terms with the potentially terminal illness of his mother. As well as the suppressed grief and guilt that Conor is having to deal with, as a result of this terrible predicament, he is also having to cope with the daily bullying of his sadistic peers at school, and a move from his family home to that of his maternal grandmother. Partly as a coping mechanism, but partly out of an innately creative imagination, Conor summons up a terrifying arboreal monster. In its technically assured rendering of the isolation, solipsism and monstrous egocentricity of the pre-teen, Bayona’s film creates a means of seamlessly navigating the film’s dreary and mundane reality and Conor’s fantastical nightmares and dreamscapes. Part of this is to do with the frequent deployment of a shallow focus that isolates Conor as the only clear point within a shot. Everything surrounding the boy is adult, and only partially discernible. This is particularly effective when used alongside the hushed and muted quality of the adult conversations, where only certain key words leap forth out of the mumble of sounds. Another visual trope that Bayona uses effectively throughout, can be found in his wide-lensing of the interior spaces of the grandmother’s house. This subtly emphasises the troubling childishness of adolescence, with Conor at sea in a domestic space that is unfamiliar and strange to him. For a large part of the film he is the only person inhabiting this particular domestic interior, with his grandmother being pulled away to care for her sickly daughter. Most unnerving of all is Bayona’s construction of shot-reverse shot sequences between Conor and the kids at his school (more often than not his bullying tormentor). These sequences almost always frame each respective child slightly off-centre and often feature ultraslow tracking that creeps toward them. The lack of any dialogue in these sequences also draws attention to that which is unspoken being something that is fundamentally weirding Conor, making him an outcast in the eyes of his peer group.
All this smart visual patterning is amplified through the film’s other themes of grief, loss, punishment and time. Time is foregrounded early in the film as a key visual motif, and eventually becomes a central part of the climax. The nightmares and dreamscapes do not operate with any coherent sense of time, and in one impressive sequence in the film a dream of the pleasure to be found in destruction falls away to reveal that hours have gone by and Conor has wrought merry chaos upon his grandmother’s living room. One of the objects that Conor tears apart during this rampage is a grandfather clock that his grandmother has told him has been in the family for generations. The literal destruction of time, and particularly family time, via the sundering of this timepiece feeds into Conor’s unspoken desire to deny death its moment. Aside from these explicit images of time, as measured in the preponderance of timepieces throughout the film, there is also a queasy sense of ‘timelessness’ in both Bayona’s choice of setting (Manchester’s industrial suburbs and the surrounding moors, or the dilapidated Blackpool pier) and the qualities of the animations that take over the screen when the eponymous monster of the title calls. These latter animations use state-of-the-art digital techniques alongside the kind of stop-motion and basic cell work that can be found as far back as 1926, in The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
The casting of Lewis MacDougall in the central role of Conor reveals a little of the cinematic heritage that Bayona is consciously building upon. MacDougall’s bruised and bony waifishness immediately draws to mind another sullen northern English adolescent, that of Billy Casper, as played by David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes (1968). Much like Loach, Bayona appears unafraid to let his young male lead come across as unlikable. Part of the integrity of both film’s is their adherence to a degree of honesty in the depiction of the traumatised adolescent’s lot. A school dining room scene in A Monster Calls effectively plays out Conor’s self-hatred as psychopathy, and the young actor is formidably truculent.
In the aftermath of this fearsome dining room scene Conor is shown in the headmistress’ office being taking to task for hospitalising his bully. The headmistress provides Geraldine Chaplin with a knowing cameo, that cinephilically links Bayona’s film to Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos (1975) a morbidly moving masterpiece about a young girl convinced that she has caused the death of her mother. Similarly, Bayona’s own thanking of Guillermo del Toro in the end credits of the film draw an explicit link back to that director’s much revered Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a film that also drifts between an aesthetic of gritty realism, timeless fairy tale and nightmarish dreamscape. I would also suggest that Bernard Rose’s fantastically bleak British horror Paperhouse (1988) has played a major role in shaping Bayona’s exceptionally evocative rendering of Conor’s overactive imagination. Both films take place within distorted interior spaces, overlooked by a deathly hillside and visited by a nightmarish projection of an adolescent’s troubled psyche.
The adults are peripheral figures within Conor’s world, but again Bayona has ably cast. Felicity Jones continues to force me to positively reassess her merits in a convincingly pain-wracked performance as the suffering mother. Toby Kebbell is given some of the film’s best lines as an absent father with far more texture and complexity than such a role normally possesses. Liam Neeson is on voice duties as the monster, although it is a little too neat and troubling to see him also pop up in a photograph as Conor’s film-loving paternal grandfather. Whilst Sigourney Weaver has the film’s most heart-rending and honest scene, in which she tries to build bridges with her grandson at a rail crossing, en route to an inevitable date with Jones’ death. A genuinely poignant aspect of the film can be traced from this conversation, as what links grandmother and grandson is their experience of Jones’ character and the loss that is about to ensue. Likewise, the constellation of creativity that is lovingly captured in the attention that Bayona pays to Conor’s process of drawing and painting, is shown at the film’s close to be a pursuit intimately shared by mother and son, and that goes with Conor beyond the loss of his mother, as something he can hold on to.
Rating: 7.5 / 10