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J.A. Bayonas A MONSTER CALLS is one of the greatest Movies of all time. Because of that, there is the first English review on this page. Have fun!
Young boy Conor’s (Lewis MacDougall) life is all but carefree. His mother (Felicity Jones) is constantly ill, and so he must live with his aloof grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). At school, he gets beaten up by the big boys. No wonder that nightmares haunt him endlessly. But all of a sudden everything changes: When he wakes up drenched in sweat once more – seven minutes after the stroke of midnight – the old tree outside his window has turned into a gigantic monster and begins to talk to him. Is this still a dream – or reality? The wise monster begins to tell him stories. His unusual friend comes to visit him every night and his stories lead Conor towards an overwhelming truth…
This is not a review. This is a declaration of love. A declaration of love to a movie which was the first in my career as a film critic to make me cast aside all the principles I tend to impose on myself. One has to sometimes so that one can remain true to oneself and one’s work. I’m setting aside what I usually want from my reviews. I’m forgetting everything I ever learnt about subjectivity and objectivity. I’m disregarding the notion that a review should not be written from a first-person point of view and that it should make its reader – the cinemagoer – its focal point. But all these rules and procedures that once became mechanisms must not stand when discussing “A Monster Calls”, an adaptation of the novel by the same name. Who says so? I do. For this youth fantasy drama which has become one of the most successful movies of all time in its native Spain has achieved something only few ever achieve: It broke my heart. Its director Bayona, previously at the helm of “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible”, took it and shredded it to pieces with every minute of this movie’s running time. But not only that: Afterwards, he put it together again all the more diligently. Writing a review about that? How could I!
Have you ever tried to explain why you love someone or something unconditionally? You will have realized that this is next to impossible. For as the word “unconditional” already implies: No conditions whatsoever are attached to such a love. You will accept everything. Strengths, weaknesses – you will even accept things you might find repulsive in others, simply because the total package would be way too boring without its rough edges. The same applies to “A Monster Calls”. To comprehend its entire beauty, it is not enough to merely focus on the things that might seem especially appealing at first glance. For the movie’s story might seem everything but appealing. It is about death. About pain. About grief. About loss. But it is also about hope and about finding it again, even if it seems long lost. J.A. Bayona succeeds in reversing all the negative connotations of these words. Thus his film displays a beauty that is purer and more complete than the one even the schmaltziest Hollywood pictures attempt to deceive us with. By letting us see through the eyes of a child, the film is only being consequential. An adult – a word that has more and more become a synonym for “cynic” – might be tempted to insult “A Monster Calls” as manipulative. I’m not. I became invested in seeing the events on the big screen unfold from the point of view of a boy who is too old to still be a child, and yet too young to be grown-up.
J.A. Bayona succeeds like no other director in expressing the sensations of his mostly young characters. He takes all the pain of young Conor – brilliantly played by Lewis MacDougall (“Pan”) – visualizing his inner strength as the monster and then letting it loose on the audience. “A Monster Calls” overruns us like an avalanche of emotions which sets us so on edge because the story addresses many things everybody has been through. In the face of an impending loss, Conor has to take sides: repression or acceptance. But how can this work when acceptance cannot be accepted? Naturally Conor would like to run away to evade this question (and thus the beginning of the first conflict) until one day he meets somebody who will come along with him on a journey even many brave adults don’t feel fit for. Liam Neeson (“Non-Stop”) plays the stop-motion animated monster that takes up the job with great warmth, benevolence and sheer boundless strength, and the monster becomes the mirror image of Conor’s helplessness which it tries to absorb by telling him three very different anecdotes from its past, all of them beautifully illustrated by impeccably painted watercolors. The fourth anecdote will eventually be Conor’s story. But to be completely honest, “A Monster Calls” from its very first second is not (only) about Conor’s fate. As the monster becomes the boy’s mirror image, by and by the film becomes our lives’ mirror image. It beings to provide the surface onto which our own lives can be projected. We can see ourselves, our fears, our grief and our anger. And we might hate ourselves for it at first…
The fact that J. A. Bayona loves his characters means by extension that he loves us, which means that “A Monster Calls” leads to one conclusion: If we love its characters, we love ourselves – a realization which underlines my inability to write a conventional review about this picture. Naturally, relatively trivial details can be qualitatively assessed: the film’s technique (its visual effects are unobtrusive, but superb!), Oscar Faura’s (“The Imitation Game”) cinematography, its music (Not only Fernando Velázquez’s score that alternates between restrained and powerful motifs is one to remember, but also Keane’s title song “Tear up this Town”) and its actors’ performances (Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver shine along with main actor Lewis MacDougall). Even though all this is supposed to contribute to strengthening the in itself already immeasurably positive impression of “A Monster Calls”, it seems entirely irrelevant when taking in the big picture. During its running time of 108 minutes – not a second too long – this movie expands into a realm in which those things that would matter elsewhere are moot. “A Monster Calls” is not just a movie. It is a visceral experience which ultimately forces us to do something nobody really can: It decides between repression and acceptance in our place by forcing us to dig up all the miseries of our pasts and go through them once again. Maybe some will not like it. For a moment I, too, felt coerced to get my heart broken without being asked. But once it was over, I recognized it: the pure beauty of “A Monster Calls”.
Writing a conclusion would mean attempting to summarize all the emotional impact which emanates from this film. To tame what must not be tamed, to mitigate its vigor and to conclude what must remain after its ending. A film like this doesn’t need a conclusion. It doesn’t even need a review…
„A Monster Calls“ will be shown in German cinemas from May 5th.