Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A Monster Calls is not an easy movie to watch. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of a boy who is enduring the slow loss of his mother from terminal cancer and his dealing with the anguish via a monster summoned from his imagination. I don’t know of many films where if I knew that’s what I was getting into that I could say – golly, that sounds like a good evening of entertainment. However having seen it, I cannot recommend it highly enough – but largely for anyone who is dealing or has dealt with the loss of a loved one.
The protagonist of the film is a young boy, but that shouldn’t be taken as the film being made only for kids or young adults. I’ve known plenty of adults who could have found some catharsis in watching this story play out.
From the opening scenes, Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall) is a far less a kid than a short adult. He’s had to learn to be largely self-sufficient since his mother played by Felicity Jones (and like the other adults is only referred to as Dad, Mum, and Grandma) is sleeping off the toxic cocktails of pain medication and chemo, and his father (Toby Kebbell) has been living in America.
His mother has always been an artist, so Conor has grown up in her footsteps. Now he uses his art to project his fantasies onto the paper, where he tries to make sense of the unfairness of the world.
After another failed attempt at battling her cancer, Mum moves to the hospital for a last ditch round of treatments, and Conor goes to live with his Grandmother (played by Sigourney Weaver). Grandma and Conor appear to have never had the best of relationships, and now being flung together they have to learn to make the best of it. Since the film is set in England, and most of the cast are from the UK, Weaver is the weak point in this particular film. She’s strong, and has the right gravitas, but she just feels more than a bit out of place.
Summoned from Conor’s imagination, one of his drawings manifests to him in a full sized Ent (for the non-Tolkien fans out there, think a King Kong sized Groot but that can talk), voiced by Liam Neeson. The “monster” rips the side of the house off to get a better look at Conor and to tell him what is going to happen – The monster will return on three occasions, and each time, will tell Conor a story. In return, on the fourth occasion, Conor has to tell the monster a story, and it must be true. Otherwise, the monster implies, Conor will be eaten whole.
Then, true to his word, each night at 12:07am, the monster returns, to tell Conor a range of parables. Where most fairytales have a straightforward revelation, in these cases, the truth that is revealed to Conor is that what seems to have happened in the story, isn’t really the truth at all. It, like most everything that happens or is said in his epistles with the monster reveals that the world isn’t as straightforward as it seems at first glance.
The movie is as brutal as it is honest. In many films, dad would decide to stick around after visiting to say goodbye to his dying wife; in this case, there’s no such easy ending. The dad isn’t painted as an evil villain, his world simply exists elsewhere, and it doesn’t include Conor. The gruff and stern Grandmother, she’s having to cope herself with the impending death of her only daughter, of whom Conor only serves to remind her of that loss.
When the stories are told, and Conor finally reveals his truth, it’s like the monster’s own stories. It’s not what most stories would normally have said, but it’s honest. And it’s in that moment that most people will immediately relate, and the tears of pain will kick in.
Inspired as an idea by the late author, Siobhan Dowd, who herself died of breast cancer and thought of it as a story of a young boy coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Written by Patrick Ness and Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), this is everything that BFG should have been, and what Collateral Beauty only wishes it could have been.
Cancer sucks, but this movie most certainly does not.