I hadn’t heard anything at all of A Monster Calls at all, off the back of my boyfriend’s recommendation, we went to see it on New Year’s Day. I had watched the trailer around 30 minutes before settling into a barren cinema, and was intrigued. The premise of the film, Conor, a twelve year old boy, ‘not young enough to be a child, but not old enough to be a man’, is faced with his mother’s terminal illness, and his tumultuous emotional journey through her declining health, in addition to having to cope with particularly nasty bullies, the prospect of living with his cold grandmother in the inevitable event of his mother’s death and an absent and barely involved father. Conor retreats into a nightmarish fantasy world, where the yew tree from the church yard overlooking his house comes to life and visits him during the night. Conor, experiencing recurring nightmares, symbolic of his mother dying, is forced by the tree to confront the intricacies of humanity, presented with tales of seemingly evil queens who turn out to be innocent and victims of circumstance, to dashing princes hiding murderous secrets, issues of character and faith and expression of violence and anger.
A Monster Calls is a film about cancer, traditionally in the Hollywood trajectory, tend to focus on the cancer sufferer, turning these traumatic and arduous real-life experiences into something a bit glossy, a bit sickly-sweet, with a focus on hope and warmth. But A Monster Calls choses it’s subject as the people that cancer affects, the feelings they have, the anger, the pain, the repressed violence they want to expel on the world in retaliation to their deeply unfair and distressing situation, and in particular as explored in A Monster Calls, the desire for it all to be over, the selfish feeling of wishing the pain would die with their loved ones. This plays nicely in A Monster Calls, deliberately claustrophobic, we rarely see any scenery or environment, and when we do, it’s rather bleak.
The burden that Conor carries with him is depicted beautifully in the film, from the brick walls barricading him in with his bullies, his grandmother’s fifty shades of beige house and the darkness and enormity of the tree monster who visits him in the night all play together to create a barren landscape, making Conor’s violent and angry outbursts vibrant and loaded with emotion. Encouraged to express his anger by the tree, Conor works through his internalised emotions about his mother’s impending death.
A Monster Calls successfully shows the nastier side of cancer, it’s not always an inspiring journey of love and realisation, it’s a slog, a chore and hugely exhausting for everyone involved, and to have this told from a child’s perspective works well in the film. The innocence of Conor not being able to simply say that he is fed up of watching his mother die is something that will stick with audiences on a personal level.
One stand out element of the film, is the animated story segments. These are simply sublime, the animation is captivating and gorgeous to look at. It provides respite from the heavy-going story, but also forms a crucial part of Conor’s exploration of his emotional state. The tree tells Conor on his first visit that he will tell him three stories, then Conor must tell him a fourth, a culmination of finally understanding his recurring nightmares and the growth of his personal emotional understanding. The stories and the tree monster are reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth which, whilst it’s a slightly different situation presents the same concept of children in a very adult situation. The animation serves to remind us that we’re experiencing cancer through the eyes of a child, as mentioned above, barely old enough to understand but old enough to be deeply affected by it.
It’s a heartbreakingly good film, and I challenge you to watch it without ending up sobbing, it’s emotional and innovative. The cast is perfect, Lewis MacDougall is astonishingly good as Conor, in what is clearly an enormous role, and Liam Neeson, who voices the tree, does so really well. His voice is rich and booming. Felicity Jones also plays the role of the mother very well, but little focus is on her, deliberately so I think.
A Monster Calls is a lovely film laden with sorrow and heartbreak, but I was pleased I had seen it, even if I did leave the cinema with racoon eyes from crying.