A monster calls – a modern fairy tale that will have you reaching for a hanky

A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

A Monster Calls is an adaptation from his own book by Patrick Ness, a young adult fiction writer who is responsible for the new Doctor Who spinoff Class, which is currently available to stream on BBC Three for UK viewers.

A Monster Calls - Lewis MacDougall as Connor O'Malley

A Monster Calls – Lewis MacDougall as Connor O’Malley

The story centres around a young adolescent boy, Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall who was just 12 when he filmed the role) who has to cope with his mother’s serious illness, hates his stern grandma, and is being bullied at school.

Too old to be a child, too young to be an adult, Conor is an artist and draws to express himself but is faced with something that simple drawings can’t express, and he begins to have what initially feel like lucid and waking dreams.

He is plagued by one nightmare that he fears more than anything but one night, the tree that he sees on the hill from his bedroom window comes to life and visits him.

It tells him that he will be told three stories by the tree, and after those stories, he will be required to tell the tree a fourth tale.

Voiced by the imposing Liam Neeson, the tree starts to tell a trio of dark fables that aren’t black and white stories of good versus evil or simple morality tales where the heroes and villains are easy to pick out and defeat.

Accompanied by some wonderful animated watercolour and practical effects, the tales are engaging and drive the plot forward, becoming increasingly real for Conor as he struggles to articulate his feelings and anger over his mum’s situation.

Moments of happiness contrast with some moving scenes as the well judged story plays out between the parables that Neeson’s tree delivers to the increasingly distressed Conor.

Saddleworth church stars in A Monster Calls

The story is directed sensitively by Juan A. Bayona (The Impossible, 2014) and was filmed in parts of West Yorkshire’s Colne Valley with St Thomas’s Church, Friarmere (also known as Heights Chapel) in Saddleworth serving as the church at the top of the windswept hill that can be seen from Conor’s bedroom.

A Monster Calls - The chapel on the hill with a tree in the yard

A Monster Calls – The chapel on the hill with a tree in the yard

The cast attached to the film has much star power – joining Neeson (who makes a very brief cameo – blink and you’ll miss him), is Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016) as Liz, Conor’s mother, Toby Kebbell (Ben Hur, 2016) as his distant father, and Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s initially cold grandma.

Weaver’s presence in what seems a uniquely English film may be a little distracting for fans of her previous work, as is her accent, but she is given space to develop what could have been a thankless role to be something much more than it initially seems.

In the end, though, it’s an uncomplicated story, as all the best fairy tales are, and if the emotional ending doesn’t move you to tears, the poetic coda will.

A Monster Calls (12A; moderate threat, scenes of emotional distress; 109 minutes)

SUMMARY: A MONSTER CALLS is a fantasy drama in which a boy encounters a monster in the form of a tree which helps him through a difficult period.

RATING: ****