Where do I start reviewing a film that left me so emotionally devastated? A Monster Calls, directed by J.A Bayona, is easily one of the saddest, most beautiful films about loss I’ve ever witnessed. As a book fanatic, I’d heard about the tale but never gotten round to reading the novel. Fortunately for purists everywhere, the film’s screenplay was penned by Patrick Ness, who wrote the book. I’m an oddly emotional guy and this film destroyed me, leaving me the last one in the screening with my head in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
Despite this sadness, it’s an incredibly beautiful journey. The story is a coming of age style tale, following Conor O’Malley as he is visited by a magnificent tree entity, voiced by Liam Neeson. In it, we explore the child’s relationship with his terminally ill mother – and through fantastic stories we see aspects of his and her lives play out. The storytelling is subtle, yet sublime. Imagery is created with water-coloured animation that takes you out of the realism of the film, whilst simultaneously complementing its overall tone and vision. These tales serve to show you the imperfect nature of man. There’s no true evil, no true good – just the in between, where we struggle to make sense of the world.
Even as the monster calls, and begins to tell O’Malley his three stories, we are given fragments of the reality of his story – which doesn’t shy away from the morally grey world we live in. His absent father isn’t truly bad, his grandmother isn’t really the tyrant he thinks she is, his mother isn’t the guardian he wishes she could be. Even the Monster, so well voiced and well animated by Neeson, isn’t the solution Conor so desperately needs.
Ultimately, Conor is left to confront his own demons. His own grief. The stories are simple allegories for the challenges he must face as he comes to terms with the situation that has befallen him. Expertly acted at such a young age, the child’s part mimics the coming of age that every boy goes through – but skews it through the eye of loss and grief that is sometimes crushing. I found moments of this film almost intolerably hard to bear – and yet throughout, there’s a strangely beautiful connection to the world thanks to the Monster.
Conor’s story is one we’ve all heard of, or experienced in some way. While many children (myself included) are lucky to have grown up without losing parents, we all inevitably face some form of loss in our lives. This film, which uses fantastical elements to both help the protagonist and give the audience further understanding of the plot, casts a magical spell that is both haunting and uplifting. We also see the ‘warts and all’ side of grief, in that we see the darker aspects of people and their flaws in light of the tragedy befalling them. Nothing is cushioned and nothing is held back. A Monster Calls’ final moments will haunt you – but they’ll also leave you spellbound.
A crushing tale, but one that sees a significantly well-acted cast tell a story through the lens of fantasy that will resonate with anyone who has experienced loss in their lives.
10/10 Bananas – A perfect score because I can’t think of a single minus. Any other review I’ve read bemoans the allegorical nature of the film – but for me, it was a perfect vision of the destructive, imperfect nature of grief.