Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away: