A Monster Calls

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2016 has been a pretty rough year for a lot of people. Inevitably, as January 1st comes around many are looking forward to 2017 with hopes of having a better time. With this in mind A Monster Calls may not be the best film with which to start the year; it isn’t going to cheer you up. 

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The film, adapted by Patrick Ness from his own book, tells the story of a young child struggling to deal with his mother’s impending death. The original concept actually came from writer Siobhan Dowd who based it on her own experiences of having cancer but tragically passed away before she had a chance to get it into a publishable format. Knowing this you would expect the movie to have an honest and raw depiction of terminal illness and it certainly does.

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Lewis MacDougall, seen previously in that weird Huge Jackman Peter Pan movie, is thirteen year old Conor who lives with his mother. Unfortunately this Mum, played by Felicity Jones, is suffering the advanced effects of a malignant tumor. Alongside this he is being bullied at school and is dealing with an unreliable father, long divorced and living in another country. The film authentically captures the numbness, powerlessness, frustration and agonising sorrow of his circumstances. It is almost unimaginable to see how he will get through but in fact his only solace comes in the form of something seemingly in his imagination.

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This, you see, is not just a family illness drama. While the monster of the title may well be mortality, there is a much more literal beast involved. Liam Neeson voices a giant walking tree that looks like it has wandered right out of the back garden of Guillermo del Toro’s imagination. The tree helps Conor vent his anger and tells him allegorical stories, leaving him to interpret and apply them to his own situation (not always correctly). The monster is very well realised; all twisty, gnarly branches and he makes Groot look like Baby Groot. In fact this creature is more akin to those other cinematic cedars the Ents, sharing their sageness and their huge brute strength.

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The stories he tells also offer their own visual pleasures as they play out on screen with stylised animation similar, but more sophisticated, than the way the tale of the three brothers was presented in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 

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The main narrative, that of Conor and his mum, is relatively simple but skilfully managed and MacDougall and Jones are both excellent. Sigourney Weaver also appears as the grandmother with a performance that promises a new phase in her career full of understated but authentically naturalistic appearances. The final resolution is perhaps not totally satisfying but purposely so and the ‘was it all real or was it a dream?’ moment is handled beautifully. 

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A Monster Calls is a totally heartbreaking movie going experience but it is magical and rewarding. Do see it but expect to cry.

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But hey! Happy New Year!

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Is this one for the kids?
The film is rated 12A and there’s are some potentially scary scenes but it is more the general tone that pushes it well above a PG. Clearly it deals with life and death in a way in which most family films wouldn’t. The certificate is right so if your kids can handle some more serious themes then take them along but I would only recommend it for 13/14+.

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The Ripley Factor
There are some films where the gender politics are the least important thing but the two matriarchs here are strong and inspiring but realistically flawed. The dad is more of a stereotype being emotionally unforthcoming and self interested but in this type of situation I fear this is what a lot of distant dads might be like. You’ve just got to trust this is based on someone’s experience and go with it.

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