Film: “A Monster Calls”; Director: Juan Antonio Bayona; Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, Geraldine Chaplin; Rating: ***1/2

“A Monster Calls” is a suspense-packed, coming-of-age tale of a boy who is “too old to be a kid and too young to be a man and a nightmare”. It is based on the book written by Patrick Ness from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.

As a fantasy fable, the story has faint traces of the Arabian Nights and our own series of “Vikram Aur Betaal”.

Set in present-day England, the film features a young boy Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who struggles to cope with the consequences of his mother, Lizzie’s terminal cancer and escapes into the world of his art and imagination. This includes him envisioning a giant living tree who repeatedly visits him.

At the very onset of the meeting, the monster tells Conor that he would tell him three stories and in return, demands Conor to tell him the fourth story and warns him to “speak the truth”. This is what keeps you glued to the screen as you wait in anticipation as to how the fourth story would end.

The screenplay, written by the author Patrick Ness, is flawless as it is able to convey with conviction the agony and adventure of Conor when he finally admits that truth to himself. What is fascinating about the plot is, how it circumvents the tragedy of cancer and how it never allows the disease to take centrestage as it just concentrates on Conor’s grief and anger.

Lewis MacDougall, in his debut film, is remarkably natural and convincing, as Conor the lonely kid who is bullied at school and hates his overbearing grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver.

Felicity Jones as his mother, does the best she can to bring life, the dying character. With her short, bluntly cut hair and fragile demeanour, she looks like a patient in her last stage. Toby Kebbell in a miniscule role, essays Conor’s estranged father.

The eponymous monster who appears out of a yew tree in the local churchyard telling Conor mysterious stories over successive nights, dramatized in animated sequences, is voiced by Liam Neeson. Though his voice is of fine timbre, he speaks with an unenergetic pace and there is never a dull moment.

On the visual front, with decent production values, the film is constructed in an old-fashioned expressionistic style that calls attention to its own artifice. Every element from the set to the costumes, seem conjured to build the fantasy effect. The locales and the animation of the monster are photo-realistic and appealing. The viewing experience is accentuated with Fernando Velarquez’s pleasing, orchestral score.

Overall, this film from the director, who had earlier given us films like “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible”, mesmerises us once again.

By Troy Ribeiro

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