A Monster Calls is an intensely emotional movie, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and his struggle to deal with the realisation that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Siobhan Dowd, who conceived the novel the film is based on, died of the same disease before she could write her book. What we have here, then, is fellow author Patrick Ness’s interpretation of Dowd’s idea – and it’s good to see he’s done her proud.
Lewis MacDougall’s performance is extraordinary. (I should perhaps note here that he’s a student at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, where I now work; sadly I can’t claim any credit for his achievements, as he’s not in my class, I’ve never met him, and he’d filmed this before I even joined the team.) He’s a gifted young actor, perfect for the screen, with a touching vulnerability here that’s reminiscent of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in the 1969 classic, Kes. His anger, fear and frustration are all writ large, and Philip and I find ourselves crying at regular intervals.
The story is essentially a simple one, making use of the idea of ‘the monstrous other’ and exploring the concept of duality. Conor is conflicted: he loves his mother, but he can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing when she’s going to die. And so he stumbles between quiet acquiescence and towering rage, the latter symbolised by the unleashing of the yew-tree monster – like Jekyll’s Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Bertha Rochester, or even Blue’s Savage in David Almond’s graphic novel. Like its literary predecessors, this monster allows Conor to release his repressed emotions. It is both his undoing and his salvation.
There’s a stellar cast at work here, with Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell occupying the roles of Gran and Dad respectively, neither of whom are what Conor needs to fill the void left by his mum, although they both try hard, in their own ways. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of the dying Elizabeth is utterly heartbreaking; she’s a real chameleon, and it’s hard to think of her as the same actor I saw in Rogue One last week. And the monster’s stories are beautifully realised, with some delightful sequences featuring dazzling, stylised animation.
There are some flaws: the bullies’ dialogue, for example, is wholly unconvincing and depressingly generic, and the first fifteen minutes or so seem aimed at a much younger audience. But these are minor niggles in the face of such an affecting, tragic piece of work. It’s a lovely film, and well worth going to see.