The monster in A Monster Calls is a metaphor, made of gnarled bark, twisted branches and Liam Neeson’s sonorous baritone. This tree-demon charges down from its hill at night to confront a boy called Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), whose already difficult life is about to crack wide open: his mother (Felicity Jones) is gravely ill, and the monster initially seems like a harbinger of disaster.
Instead, it might just be a spirit guide, a helping hand through crisis, cooked up by the boy’s own feverish imagination. It is, after all, a yew tree, held sacred for its regenerative properties.
Fantasies that spring from the creative turmoil of a child are a fertile subgenre in cinema – aspects of this film call to mind Labyrinth, the Laika animation Coraline, or even Bernard Rose’s undersung 1988 British chiller Paperhouse, which had a similar setting in rural England.
Cannily adapted by Patrick Ness from his illustrated book of the same name, this is a more choked-up offering than any of those, so overcast with sadness it sometimes seems to be gulping for fresh breaths.
Conor’s hobby, and a respite from thinking about his mum, or dealing with the bullies at school, is sketching with graphite. He stays up until the witching hour in his bedroom, where this tree-BFG, not only rumblingly voiced by Neeson but motion-captured so that it looms Neeson-ishly down at him, finds him nightly.
Instead of threatening to devour him, though, the apparition has stories to tell. “Stories?” asks Conor, unimpressed, and puckering his face as if the monster is mainly just wasting his time.
The stories – there are three, two of them animated in luscious watercolour – illustrate paradoxes which Conor, initially baffled, must grasp in his unstable state of mind. They tell of wronged witches, misdirected vendettas, in a fantasy world of dragons and rumoured poisonings, not unlike Hamlet’s play-within-the-play.
As Neeson’s tree narrates them, the film stands still, but expectantly so, and colours spill across the screen in thrilling splashes: given the chance, you’ll rewind and watch these painterly interludes again, stat.
Conor isn’t just a bystander here, but an outstandingly detailed main character. Spanish director JA Bayona has form with drawing powerful performances from children, if you think back to his horror debut The Orphanage, and discovery of Tom Holland – the new Spidey, no less – in The Impossible.
Even by his standards, though, MacDougall is very special: his face can hide away pockets of pain in one moment, and explode with furious resentment in the next beat.
There’s a Spielbergian showmanship to Bayona’s films, wedded to an unabashed emotionalism, and this one reaches for you down in the gut. Working on ever-larger effects budgets – next up, the Jurassic World sequel – Bayona’s like a stage-fond illusionist who loves to flaunt his tricks and devices, opening his films inside out for your inspection. Subtlety might not be the name of the game, exactly – he just happens to prefer more emphatic games.
The effects team have certainly gone to town, not only on the molten innards of the monster, but on the recurrent image of a church and graveyard crumbling into an abyss, where Conor fears he will lose his mother forever. Jones, while perfectly sensitive, doesn’t have a great deal more to do than pallidly disappear in her role.
There’s quietly terrific work, though, from Toby Kebbell as Conor’s runaway dad, pained by the problem of being honest about death, the dilemma of whether to shield his child, and his awareness, having married too young, of belonging on the fringes of the family’s grief.
Sigourney Weaver, unyielding and imperious as Conor’s house-proud grandmother, hasn’t quite got to grips with her RP accent, but her best scene – the film’s best – thankfully doesn’t need it. It’s her mute devastation when finding Conor, in the grips of a particularly wild hallucination, has trashed every inch of her living room. She’s lost for words, looking at all her ornaments obliterated on the carpet, as Conor tries to blub his apologies.
The scene is about everything they’re in the process of accepting, and the emotional violence of it, as they fight their way to a strange kind of understanding for the first time, takes you aback.
It’s a pivotal encounter, in a film which keeps devising ever-more-epic collisions between an angry boy and his own sorrow.