Friday, January 6, 2017

A Monster Calls: An enchanting fable

A Monster Calls (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and scary images

By Derrick Bang

Some children’s books — even incredibly popular ones — are structured in a way that resists big-screen adaptation.

As Conor (Lewis MacDougall) grows more concerned about his mother's increasingly
frail condition, the visits from a parable-spinning monster become more serious,
intense ... and dangerous.
(Consider, as one of the most famous examples, how much time has passed since Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time debuted back in 1963. We finally have an adaptation scheduled for release in the spring of 2018.)

A Monster Calls was published in 2011; the illustrated children’s novel — story by Patrick Ness, art by Jim Kay — went on to win Britain’s prestigious Carnegie and Greenaway medals. It’s a poignant, deeply thoughtful and at times elliptical fantasy about a boy working his way through extreme grief; as such, it’s also an instructive and extremely clever parable for readers seeking similar solace.

The book has a sobering back-story, having been conceived by British author Siobhan Dowd during her unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. She died before being able to write it; her editor passed Dowd’s notes along to Ness.

It’s a sensitive and delicate tale, enhanced in great part by Kay’s often ragged — but always beautiful — black-and-white illustrations. The mere attempt to bring such a story to the big screen is audacious; that director J.A. Bayona has done such an exemplary job, with Ness adapting his own book, is nothing short of remarkable.

We meet 13-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall, in a sublime starring debut) as he wakens from what obviously has become a recurring dream: one in which the landscape surrounding his home is rent asunder, and he’s unable to save his terrified mother (Felicity Jones) from falling into a bottomless pit. Conor always wakens just as he loses his grip on her clutching hand.

As a typical day then begins, we note unusual independence: Conor makes his own breakfast, which he eats alone; he runs a load of wash and dresses for school. In the background, at one point, we hear a feeble, deeply congested cough. The inference is easy.

School, sadly, is its own waking nightmare. Although isolated at the rear of his various classrooms — teachers giving him a wide berth, making allowances for his solemn failure to participate — Conor nonetheless is an ongoing target of the sadistically cruel school bully, Harry (James Melville, impressively nasty). Then it’s back home, where his mother, wan but feigning cheer, is up and about. They share a movie, but she’s unable to stay awake to the conclusion.

Clearly, this dynamic has played out for quite some time. Its tragic monotony is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who has come to a decision regarding her daughter’s care, and the need to relieve the burden on Conor’s shoulders. But he doesn’t want to live with his grandmother, who is formal and unyielding; more crucially, he and his mother are devoted to each other.

Deeply tormented, unable to sleep, at 12:07 that night Conor is visited by a towering, shambling monster shaped by the branches and leaves of the large yew tree that watches over the old church and graveyard visible from the boy’s bedroom window. The frightening creature — Liam Neeson supplying its deep, gravelly voice — claims to have responded to Conor’s summons, and explains that it will tell three “true stories” ... after which Conor must respond with a fourth story of his own.

And if the boy’s story is not true, the monster will devour him.

Worried about his mother, angered by his grandmother’s unwanted intrusion, Conor responds with fury; the last thing he wants — or needs — is some brambly soothsayer spinning wild yarns. But the monster is not to be ignored, and Conor has no choice but to relent, and listen.

As the first story thus emerges, it does so in a splash of watercolor-style animation befitting its fairy tale structure; the style is arresting, even charming ... until the story turns serious, even chilling. Suddenly, the captivating artwork becomes menacing.

Worse yet, the fable concludes in a puzzling, ambiguous manner that Conor finds maddening (as do we). What moral is to be extracted from such a vague and indefinite tale?

Life in the real world continues, these three players adjusting to a “routine” that becomes — to Conor — distressingly less predictable. A visit from his father (Toby Kebbell), who deserted them years earlier for a new life and family in California, is a joyous but troubling surprise: What could have prompted such a trip, at this particular moment?

The challenge places us in Conor’s shoes: To what degree, if any, do the monster’s stories reflect on the boy’s trauma? Do they speak to human nature? Imply or suggest specific action?

And, perhaps more dangerously, do the monster’s actions — which Conor initially assumes take place only in his own fantasy nether-realm — have actual consequences in his real-world life?

To say that care and balance are required to maintain this story’s precious — and precarious — tone is the wildest of understatements. Yet Bayona pulls it off, and he’s clearly the artistic talent for the job, having previously helmed both 2007’s unsettling The Orphanage and 2012’s harrowing The Impossible, the latter a fact-based saga of a family in crisis. Bayona has a knack for the intimacy of quiet moments, and the emotional intensity behind protracted silences.

Jones’ very appearance is heartbreaking: progressively wan and fragile, as if she is crumbling inside herself. Coupled with the ferocious pain ever present in young MacDougall’s eyes, the scenes shared between Conor and his mother are difficult to endure; we feel like voyeurs, intruding on deeply private moments.

Watching the boy feign cheerful smiles, as his mother tries on a wig, is almost too much to bear.

Weaver is similarly powerful, her often taut and frozen expression the refuge of a woman who always has exerted meticulous control over her home, life and emotions ... and dare not rupture this façade, lest she shatter like one of her prized porcelain figurines. Sadly, she can’t even “gentle down” for the benefit of a grandson who clearly needs help.

Kebbell is laid back and patient, but even Conor recognizes that his father seems more comfortable in the role of big brother, than parent. “Grandma says you’re a starter, but not a finisher,” Conor tells his father, at one point; although the words sting, both man and boy clearly sense their truth.

Bayona deftly straddles a difficult atmospheric line, the raw, delicate intimacy of Conor’s various plights abruptly — savagely, explosively — interrupted by the monster’s many appearances. Reality itself is obliterated, the boy often perched precariously on a dangling slice of landscape, while the monster re-shapes everything else. The effect is startling, orchestrated with destructive intensity by production designer Eugenio Caballero (an Oscar winner for Pan’s Labyrinth) and visual effects supervisor Félix Bergés.

Answers do emerge, although Ness can’t resist a mischievous undertone that leaves a few tantalizing mysteries (and will fuel some lively post-film discussions). But the core message will be recognized by anybody who has endured the soul-ravaging pain of watching a loved one suffer — hour after hour, day after day, week after week — through a debilitating illness.

We are, as a species, very hard on ourselves during such ordeals. While the moral behind A Monster Calls offers a difficult truth, it also reminds us of an equally important facet of human nature: the need to forgive.

Not only others, but ourselves.

This film is undeniably challenging, its structure unusual at best, and perhaps too weird for viewers unaccustomed to the apparently irrational precepts of low fantasy. But Ness remains in firm control of the story, and Bayona is equally skilled at presentation; with patience and a willingness to place one’s trust in their talents, you’ll likely be surprised by the degree to which this saga works its magic, and the emotional power of its final scenes.

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