Sometimes, the hardest thing to accept is the inevitable. To a child, inexperienced in the world, everything seems eternal, unchanging. The long days of school between weekends last forever. Parents are invincible and impossibly smart and immortal. But this is the story of twelve year old Conor O’Malley, “a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man,” and much as he would like to, he can no longer believe any of these things.
His family fragmented, his father now living on the west coast of America, Conor has a half-sister he has never met, he is bullied at school and none of the teachers see it, and his mother, Lizzie, is seriously ill. She goes for her treatments every fortnight, and if they are bad she has to stay in the hospital. Silence runs in the family. Conor never hears from his father, his mother will not talk to him, but he knows that her illness is getting worse.
Based on Patrick Ness’ award-winning novel of the same name, illustrated from Jim Kay, the original idea of A Monster Calls was conceived by Siobhan Dowd as she herself was facing terminal illness; sharing a literary agent with Ness, he was approached to develop the idea after her death, and he has now adapted it into the screenplay which has been directed by J A Bayona of The Orphanage and The Impossible.
With an appearance lifted directly from Kay’s illustrations, into Conor’s crumbling world comes the monstrous figure which visits him at night, a towering yew tree which pulls its roots from the churchyard on the hill beyond his window. It promises to tell him three stories after which Conor will have to tell his own story, and in luminous watercolour fantasias it does exactly that, yet the tales are not comforting fables of happy endings, they are twisted sleights of hand, barbed deceptions which ask Conor to consider their meanings beyond the apparent.
While the difficulty of facing death is the central theme of the film, like Kathleen Turner’s description of William Hurt in The Accidental Tourist, the characters are muffled; that they are hiding from the truth is evident, but with a cast which boasts The Theory of Everything’s Felicity Jones, The East’s Toby Kebbell and Death and the Maiden’s Sigourney Weaver, the impression should be of repressed rather than an absence of emotion .
Whether trying to protect Conor or simply too wrapped up in their own grief and priorities, they are doing no favours to the most vulnerable member of the family, and denied an outlet his rage accumulates explosively, and of the whole cast it is Pan’s Lewis MacDougall who is the standout, believable in every scene. A talented and imaginative artist, his father can’t give him the answers he needs and doesn’t really try, his grandmother treating him like a child who is not entitled to information or an opinion.
Weaver’s presence is an incongruity in the film, her English accent jarring every time she opens her mouth, when a native performer of similar age, stature and talent would not have triggered immediate cognitive dissonance in every scene; filmed before Jones’ appearance in Rogue One turned her into an international star, it can be presumed the presence of Weaver was planned to broaden the appeal of the film in a similar manner to Bayona’s decision to cast the leads of The Impossible with ethnicities more acceptable to a multiplex audience than the real family whose story he told.
With a voice so deep as to make the glass on the table shake, the monster voiced by Liam Neeson is a walking giant of trunk and branch and fiery spark but while more loquacious than Groot inevitably reminds too much of him, a digital presence who never quite convincingly steps into the real world. Undeniably the film is well-intentioned, sincerely conceived and heartfelt, but when A Monster Calls at midnight it should be raw and honest, yet instead feels as if it is holding back even when, with time fast slipping away, the monster makes his final demand that the truth be told.