Review / ‘A Monster Calls’ (PG) *** and a half

GIVE thanks that the monster in Spanish director JA Bayona’s gentle fantasy based on Patrick Ness’ novel isn’t an angry alien intent on destroying mankind. But he doesn’t like being crossed when he’s busy doing good for somebody in need of emotional succour.

Small for his years, Conor O’Malley (a mature performance by Lewis MacDougall) is having problems with just about everything. A bigger boy at school bullies him and tells him that he is too insignificant to be worth noticing. His father moved to California a decade ago when he was five. His mother in England is coping with an illness that experienced filmgoers will quickly recognise as cancer. Managing the house, his stern maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver in her late sixties reinforcing my thesis about handsome enduring after beauty succumbs to age) allows him little leeway.

Conor’s bedroom window looks out to a hilltop on which a yew tree has been growing for 600 years. In folk medicine, yew leaves and bark have curative powers. One night at 12.07, Conor sees the yew tree become a giant humanoid figure that tells him that it intends to tell him three stories in return for Conor’s telling a fourth story based on his nightmares. Admirably voiced by Liam Neeson and of truly impressive power, it appears only at 12.07. Its stories have messages indicating pathways toward understanding for Conor to make of what he will.

The film offers an agreeable charm that avoids cliché and strives for credibility given its fantasy theme. Filmgoers expecting thrills, disasters and the kind of drawn-out antagonistic violence delivered in so many monster movies will look in vain for those dramatic values here. But they might learn something useful about the human condition. And when the monster goes to work, the film’s certainly not short of exciting moments.

At Capitol 6, Palace Electric and Dendy

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