Monday, 19 December 2016

When monsters help face life's brutality

There is little that is as infuriating as feeling that one is being manipulated into crying by a piece of entertainment.

Now of course, almost all entertainment seeks to manipulate the emotions, but some instances are rather more subtle than others.

And where the unsubtle can annoy, the subtle can have a cathartic effect.

With A Monster Calls, it’s very much a case of the latter.

Written by Patrick Ness and based on his own novel of the same name (which itself originated from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she could develop it), the film follows schoolboy Conor O’Malley as he faces the terminal illness of his mother.

His father is in the US with a new family, his grandmother is a cold, uptight figure and he’s being bullied at school.

But one night, an ancient Yew from a nearby churchyard roars into life as a monstrous tree, and challenges Connor to listen to three stories – told through beautiful animations – asserting that then Connor himself must tell a fourth but that it must be the truth.

An extraordinary screen representation of complex emotions, it bucks most current cinematic trends – not least in leaving some viewers wondering what age group it’s really ‘meant’ for, as though such stories can be filed away conveniently in boxes divided neatly along the lines of age.

To work, not only does this require an assured but delicate touch from director JA Bayona, but a top-notch cast too.

Signourney Weaver is excellent as the grandmother, while Tony Kebbell as the departed father adds to the sense of adults not knowing how to reach out to the boy.

If there’s a problem – and this risks being churlish – it’s that Felicity Jones as the dying mother can seem altogether too saintly in her suffering, although it’s to the film’s credit that the brutal progress of the cancer is portrayed utterly unflinchingly.

But boy and monster are at the heart of this.

Lewis MacDougall as Connor turns in a super performance of remarkable nuance and depth, while Liam Neeson lends a deep, primal power to the monster of the title.

A tale about truth and emotion, the power of stories and so much more, it could, all too easily, have lapsed into mawkish sentimentality, but it steers a clear path throughout to place before us a profoundly moving experience.

It opens across the UK on 1 January and should be widely seen. Just don’t forget the hankies.

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