A Monster Calls review – wrenchingly effective

Lewis MacDougall is remarkable as a young boy dealing with grief in an excellent adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel

A piercing sadness runs through this impressive adaptation, by Patrick Ness, of his acclaimed young adult novel. You ache for Conor, the 13-year-old boy at the heart of the story, as he struggles to process bereavement. You will be likely to weep with him as he comes to terms with the loss of his mother. This emotional authenticity, the palpable pain in a remarkable central performance from relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall, is both the film’s main asset and a factor that makes it a tough sell. This is not just a film about grief; it’s a film that immerses you in grief’s journey.

With his huge, hungry eyes, MacDougall has the vulnerability of David Bradley’s Billy in Kes. He tackles a complex, conflicted role with a confidence far beyond his years. There is a wonderful scene in which Conor and his ailing mother (Felicity Jones) watch the 1933 version of King Kong together. Rooting for the monster, Conor is stunned by King Kong’s defeat. The camera rests on his face as, in a few short seconds, he realises that the narrative doesn’t always end the way he wants it to, and the implications of this for his own life.

Conor’s own monster, voiced by a gravelly Liam Neeson, is an ancient, pagan tree spirit that visits just after midnight with the promise of three stories, told through lovely watercolour-inspired animation, in return for a fourth story from Conor – the truth that he is denying. The design of the monster evokes the earthy magic of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth – perhaps not surprisingly, given that del Toro was an executive producer on director JA Bayona’s feature debut, The Orphanage.

Elsewhere, the design is equally articulate. The house that Conor shares with his mother is chaotic but homely, with the mossy colour palette of a forest glade, and a riot of clashing flower prints. In contrast, all the wood in his uptight grandmother’s house is dead; bent and sculpted into gloomy antique furniture.

It doesn’t all work. The bullies who plague Conor feel more like a plot device than authentic characters, and Sigourney Weaver is an uneasy fit as the stuffy, controlling grandmother. But the film is wrenchingly effective nonetheless.

Watch the trailer for A Monster Calls.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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