Finding natural companionship
T hat Spanish director JA Bayona is very talented will be confirmed by anyone who’s seen his horror film The Orphanage (2007), or The Impossible (2012), in which a British family holidaying in Thailand is literally swept up by the destructive Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. His new film — not so new, actually, because it’s been gathering dust on the shelves of its distributor for far too long — is, like its predecessors, a film about a family in crisis.
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, which drew on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls does pose some challenges for audiences, which is probably why it’s taken so long to reach us. Dowd was terminally ill with breast cancer when she conceived the premise of a book about a child coping with the death of his mother, a premise artfully developed by Ness after her death, with illustrations by Jim Kay (whose concepts influence the visual style of Bayona’s film).
Films about children who befriend monsters have not, in the past, been very successful (think of The Iron Giant, 1999, and The BFG, 2016, neither of which performed well at the box office, though they have their loyal followers) and a film in which the 13-year-old protagonist is only too aware that his mother is dying a painful death is, I suppose, a marketing challenge. Certainly it’s not a film for young kids, but for older children and their parents it provides a thoughtful approach to the subject. Plus it’s beautifully made, as are all of Bayona’s films.
Ness wrote the screenplay, so it’s no surprise the film sticks quite closely to the original. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small English village with his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones). His father (Toby Kebbell) is living in Los Angeles. Conor adores his mother, and her illness is deeply troubling for him.
The stress he experiences finds its way into his dreams. He has recurring nightmares of an earthquake that destroys the nearby church and graveyard and he’s unable to save his mother from falling into the abyss created by the disaster. One night he experiences a different kind of horror: a giant yew tree that he can see from his bedroom window comes to life. The Tree Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not exactly frightening: he’s a solemn, imposing creature who thereafter arrives every night at exactly 12.07 — why this specific time is something we learn later.
The Tree Monster promises to tell Conor three stories, after which Conor will tell one of his own. Each of the stories — depicted via animation — redefines the norms of what’s Good and what’s Bad. In the first story there’s a wicked stepmother who kills her husband, the King. Her stepson, the Prince, is in love with a farmer’s daughter — but all the conventions of the fairytale are up-ended in this and the other two stories told by the Monster.
Conor’s father pays his son a visit, but makes it clear he doesn’t want the boy to join him in California. The only alternative, when the worst comes to the worst, is for Conor to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) in the bedroom where his mother slept as a child.
For this delicate and emotionally powerful film, Bayona appears to have fallen under the influence of one of the greatest films made in Spain, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). That film, too, involved children frightened by a monster. In an early scene in A Monster Calls, Conor and his mother watch King Kong, and the notion of a monster with a romantic streak seems to affect the boy.
So far, Bayona has made his films in studios located just outside Barcelona, while filming the exteriors on location. This worked convincingly for The Impossible, which looked as though it was set entirely in Thailand, and it works here too. Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie and a long-time Spain resident, has appeared in all the director’s films to date, and she crops up again here as Conor’s head teacher.
Bayona uses special effects with great skill, but A Monster Calls is nothing like the effectsdriven movies that fill our cinema screens these days. It’s a small, almost delicate film that will richly reward those who connect with it. Paris Can Wait, the first feature made by 80year-old Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis Ford and mother of Sofia), is a road movie rather reminiscent of the series of Trip films featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but without the jokes (their latest, The Trip to Spain, opens in a couple of weeks). In this case, the odd couple at the centre of the film is not two bickering blokes but an attractive middle-aged American woman and a charmingly flirtatious middleaged Frenchman. Like their British counterparts these two embark on a leisurely drive through attractive countryside, partaking of mouth-watering gourmet meals along the way. It’s all very seductive.
Apparently inspired by real events, the film opens in Cannes during the film festival. Anne Lockwood (Diane Lane) is married to worka- A Monster Calls; Paris Can holic Hollywood producer Michael (Alec Baldwin) who, when he isn’t doing deals on his mobile phone, is complaining about the prices (€12 for a bottle of water). Michael is flying to Budapest in his private jet but Anne, who is suffering from earache, makes a last-minute decision to skip the Hungarian capital and travel overland to Paris, where they plan to meet in a couple of days. Michael’s French business partner, Jacques Clement (Arnaud Viard), offers to drive her, but they’ve hardly left Cannes before Jacques is stopping for lunch at Le Moulin de Mougins, one of the area’s famous restaurants.
And so it goes on, with Jacques making lots of diversions either to five-star restaurants (in Vienne, Lyon and Vezelay) or to visit spectacular Roman ruins or absorb some culture, such as a visit to the Institut Lumiere in Lyon, the museum that celebrates the birth of cinema. During the journey, Jacques regularly borrows Anne’s credit card to pay for hotel rooms and meals, and behaves flirtatiously towards her.
Whether you enjoy this very attractive road movie will depend on whether you find him a creep and a cliche of a French roue or the dangerous charmer to whom Anne finds herself responding. Jonathan Sequeira’s Australian documentary Descent into the Maelstrom is a detailed history of the 1970s Sydney punk band Radio Birdmen, incorporating interviews with its very articulate members. Lovers of the music scene will find the nostalgic footage from 40 years ago exhilarating, but the film, well-made though overlong, is strictly for fans of this kind of music.
Lewis MacDougall as Conor in Spanish director JA Bayona’s
left, Alec Baldwin and Diane Lane in Eleanor Coppola’s charming Wait