If you’ve ever seen J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage – and if you haven’t, you should – you’ll know that the director is a master at blending magic with heartbreak. But even after the trauma of that film’s beautifully bittersweet ending – it’s making me well-up just thinking about it – you still won’t be quite prepared for the state of emotional devestation that his latest, an adaptation of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, will leave you in.
In many ways, this and Bayona’s aforementioned masterwork make for great companion pieces. Each deals with the central theme of grief and the difficulty of trying to let a loved one go, using a fantastical narrative device to drive the story. Here, ghosts are replaced with a monster; a giant yew tree that is awoken, or rather called, by the young Conor O’Malley.
As Conor tries to deal with his mother’s increasingly aggressive illness, the tree tells the boy that he will be visited four times. Three of those times, Conor will be told a story by the monster, and on the fourth Conor will return the favour by telling it “his truth”.
Each of these stories, a metaphor that in some way reflects what Conor is going through at the time, are beautifully animated and share a visual resemblance to the story of the three brothers in the final Harry Potter film. These stunning and colourful sequences are blended in with the live action; both the extravagant and mundane imagery being connected by Oscar Faura’s simply wonderful cinematography.
But whilst A Monster Calls proves a far more visually-textured experience than you might expect, the thing that it gets most right is the drama. The key to the film’s success is that it absolutely nails its portrayal of a young boy trying to deal with such trauma, something which is undoubtedly the result of Patrick Ness’ writing – the book’s author is also responsible for the screenplay – and the firsthand experiences of terminal illness that come from Siobhan Dowd who conceived the original idea.
The unrelenting urge to smash things up, to be smashed up; feeling invisible and left out from secret conversations; to have both anger and love constantly fighting and combining with each other; these are just some of the rich, deep and confusing feelings that any teenager (or adult for that matter) coming to terms with loss will surely be familiar with. Ness’ writing perfectly captures all of the above, but it is the astonishing central performance from Lewis MacDougall, a fourteen-year old actor whose only other work to date is last year’s Pan, which really drives the emotion home.
It is the rarest of young performances, right up there with those that the likes of DiCaprio have given in the past. Just as the monster tries to get Conor to admit the truth about his feelings, there is a truthfulness to MacDougall’s acting that touches on something both familiar and raw. Also excellent are Felicity Jones, who we see become more physically frail throughout the story, and Sigourney Weaver who gives an understated performance in comparison to the young actor’s.
Between Lewis MacDougall, J.A. Bayona and Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is a future-classic in the making. Magical, real, heartbreaking and hopeful; it is a giant triumph that will leave you in floods of tears. Make sure you stock up on tissues beforehand, because you won’t be forgetting this one for quite sometime.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com