Films of the year: A Monster Calls (6th place)
The first film I saw in 2017 was director Juan Antonio Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, A Monster Calls. A film for which Ness wrote the screenplay himself, and a film that proved to take some beating. Nothing hit me in quite the same way.
I didn’t know much about it, came to it as cold as I could, and have duly spent much of the rest of the year thinking about it. Thinking how such an accessible piece of work deals with some huge topics. Thinking of how it does it to such a broad audience. And thinking that this is what fantasy cinema can do. That amidst the special effects, the CG monsters, the big ideas lies a very human story. An unmissable one, all the more special for talking to such a broad audience about things that really matter.
In the case of A Monster Calls, the human at the heart of this story is Conor O’Malley, a 12-year old boy played (terrifically) by Lewis MacDougall. Conor, sadly, is surrounded by troubles a 12-year old boy – in an ideal world – wouldn’t have to fear in the slightest.
There’s his father, who at best is on the outskirts of his life. His loving mother, of whom he seems to see less and less. His grandmother, smothering him with strictness rather than love. And then he has to contend with the bullies at school. Finding space to be a 12-year old proves very difficult. Little wonder that he’s amenable to the 12.07am visit of a tree monster, once with the voice of Liam Neeson, promising to tell Conor three true stories. Stories that lend structure and foundations to a hugely meaningful film, and that shine a way for Conor through a very tricky life.
I won’t spoil a single one of them. They’re really the kind of stories you best discover for yourselves.
One important note, though. From the off, it feels like a very tight collaboration between author and director here. I have no insight to offer as to whether that was the case, but it feels like a story in real unity, where it was clear what story all concerned wanted to tell, and how they wanted to tell it. I can barely see a weak link, and truthfully, had no inclination to go looking for one.
Film is, as many more intelligent people than me have pointed out, a two-way thing. That the story on the screen before you in turn depends on what you bring to it, and how you are to it, in order to make it work. I can’t wrap my head around if there was a perfect storm of circumstance for me, but I found the film mesmerising. Still do.
Juan Antonio Bayona, the film’s director, was already deep into work on next year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom by the time A Monster Calls arrived in UK cinemas. He’s going to have to go some to top this. Snubbed by the majority of the awards circus earlier this year, A Monster Calls snuck into US cinemas just over 12 months ago, before getting its January bow in Britain. As such, it’s just the kind of film that struggles to make a UK-centric top 10 list such as this.
And yet it has. Because it’s a special movie this, one that’s hit hard – for good reasons – the people who saw it. And it’s a film too that resonates, and is going to matter for a long time to come. I loved it.