There is nothing quiet, civil or tidy about grief.
It is, in every way you can imagine, disruptive, loud and dark, filled with a thousand regrets, aching, terrible loss and the hollowing sense that comes with the sheer futility of trying to hold onto a loved one who is no longer ours to keep.
J. A. Bayona adaptation of Patrick Ness’s book A Monster Calls (Ness also wrote the screenplay) powerfully captures grief’s remorseless, relentless intensity in a way that anyone who has suffered great loss will immediately recognise, and that those so far spared death’s cruel hand will be deeply moved by.
You cannot help but be profoundly impacted by the raw and unflinching way in which the film addresses a topic from which many in the West, with its compartmentalised approach to death and loss, and its propensity to hide its associated messy emotions away behind a veil of euphemisms and trite ritual, usually recoil.
To do so with A Monster Calls would be to miss a film that understands, intimately and all too well, that grief cannot be addressed in any meaningful, healing way unless it is expressed, to authentically find its voice in a way that pays no heed to social proprieties but which is allowed to scream, shout, and rail against what feels like a injustice for which is there no balm.
Certainly that is how 12 year old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) finds his grief leaking out, in messy destructive ways – at one point he destroys pretty much everything in his grandmother’s sitting room in such a comprehensive manner that it is described with a wry grin by his distant father (Toby Kebbell) as “very thorough” – as he tries to assimilate the looming death of his mother from terminal illness.
His mother Lizzie O’Malley is devoted to her son (wishing at one point with great regret that she had a hundred more years to give him), the comforting focal point of a singular life blighted by incessant bullying and social ostracism that finds expression in the evocative artwork that covers the walls of Conor’s bedroom.
Like any mother she does her best to shield Conor from the full trauma of her illness, pretending that all the failed treatments and near misses are just blips on the healing radar and that she’ll be right as rain in no time.
But Conor knows otherwise, and bears the weight of this knowledge stoically as he pretends to his mother and every other adult around him including his grandmother played by Sigourney Weaver, who will be his guardian once his mother dies, that all the positive words and reassurances are as real as Lizzie tries to make them.
He cannot, however, escape the sense of a clock ticking down, of a world breaking apart in ways far beyond his ability to deal with it, and so he summons a monster, a humanoid Yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) – the species chosen is deliberate given the tree’s historical role as a source of many drugs including cancer treatments – to help him strike back in a way that King Kong, the subject of a movie he and his mother watch together one night, was never allowed to do, much to Conor’s regret.
The monster represents an empowerment where there is none, but even more powerfully, comes with three instructive stories that help the young boy, who is “too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man”, to understand that life is far more complex and nuanced than he could ever imagine.
As everything changes around Conor, the monster represents a continuity of sorts, one that gives stability where there is none, and helps him to understand that true healing only comes when we admit how we are really feeling.
Surging with fire and tough love tenderness, the monster doesn’t mince his words (though there is always an underlying gentleness at play), making it clear to Conor that everyone is flawed and broken and that you can’t assign roles of good or evil to anyone on first or even second blush.
It’s a way of helping the young boy deal with the fact that so much of what he is about to experience, both before and after his mother’s death, falls well outside his childlike understanding to date and that simply bottling up what he’s feeling, which is how he has handled adversity up to that point, won’t help him to get through the bleak days ahead.
The monster also helps Conor to understand that the recurring nightmare that fills his restless sleeping hours, one in which the earth opens up and almost swallows his mother whole – Conor tries valiantly to hold onto her but fails in the end, representative of how powerless we are in the face of death – is a lesson in moving forward, that we can only truly move forward when we realise we cannot alter what is about to happen.
It may sound like New Age gobbledygook to some but the reality of death is that only when we admit to our powerlessness can we actually claw back any power at all in a situation where so much is taken away and where we can do nothing to do stop it even though we desperately want to.
In A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness and J. A. Bayona have crafted a devastatingly powerful film that pulses with insightful humanity and a raw realness, one which reminds our all too tidy and measured Western minds that the only way through the inherent carnage of grief is to be true and authentic to the reality of the moment, and that only when we do that will we find our way through to any kind of healing.
The film is not trite about this in any way shape or form; even as it holds out hope that life can get better beyond the swirling morass of grief, it is also quite circumspect about the tough and challenging road ahead.
It is an intense journey of a film yes, but it is also deeply and profoundly uplifting even as your grieving heart – I lost my dad earlier this year so the film held a particular, tear-soaked resonance for me – is pulled from your chest and stomped on in the best way possible.
A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving, deeply transformative, ruggedly poetic and visually-striking film that examines grief and loss in a way that few films do, daring to call our euphemistic charade of grieving for what it is, in the hope that we will come to understand that in truly embracing the darkness and sadness of this time, like Conor eventually does, that we will come to know the kind of true healing that will allow life to flourish once again.