A Monster Calls, adapted from Patrick Ness’s children’s novel, isn’t exactly a jolly romp of a boy and his monster pal. Rather, it’s the story of twelve-year old Connor (Lewis MacDougal) struggling to face the cruelty of life at an exceedingly young age. His mother (Felicity Jones) is declining from a terminal illness, he’s dealing with incessant school bullying, his father is absent and living overseas, and he has a strained relationship with his disciplinarian grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
Connor’s isolation and worries over his mother’s health manifests itself through his nightmares - traumatic recurring episodes where the ground underneath his feet cracks and he is swallowed up, falling into the earth underneath. One evening, at precisely 12.07am, Connor feels the earth shaking and finds his nightmare coming true as the grand old yew tree outside marches over to his bedroom window and bellows in a menacing voice (unmistakably belonging to Liam Neeson) – ‘Connor, I have come to get you’. The yew informs Connor that he will tell him three stories on three successive nights. On the fourth night, Connor will have to tell a story, and in doing so, ‘a great truth’ will be revealed.
These stories, a combination of dark fairytales and fables, are beautifully visualised through animatronics animation, evoking certain episodes of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller in their vintage, aesthetic beauty, and are by far the highlight of the film. The inclusion of these stories certainly make refreshing distractions from the tragic events encircling Connor. More significantly, their delicate nature contrasts against the yew, which booms loudly, towers threateningly and will no doubt frighten younger audience members. The fables and the yew’s role in Connor’s life becomes apparent as the film progresses, but there is no escaping the narrative’s inevitable outcome and the overall sense of sadness.
The film’s subdued colour palette and stunning landscape can be compared to the moors of Wuthering Heights in their wild, untamed ruthlessness. Meanwhile, the tangled branches of the yew may be read to represent Connor’s emotions, of the feelings twisting him up inside, and the gut-wrenching torment over his mother’s illness. For this, and many other reasons, it is hard to place this film in terms of categorisation. It isn’t really a children’s film – it’s far too dark for that - but at the same time it may be too predictable for adults. It’s not a horror movie, but not necessarily a friendly monster film either.
A beautiful landscape cannot disguise the tragic plot of A Monster Calls. Yet if its message of finding strength and hope helps just one child or adult in distress, then that must surely be seen as a success.