From Harry Potter to the Secret Garden, children’s literature is chock full of orphans.
Yet theirs is a rare form of bereavement, usually the result of a tragic accident that happened without warning at an age they barely remember. In A Monster Calls, 12-year-old protagonist Conor O’Malley faces up to a more common, brutal reality; the loss of a parent to terminal illness.
Lewis MacDougall gives an intense performance as Conor, an introverted schoolboy having to deal with bullies, his parents’ divorce and the rapid decline of his mother, played by Felicity Jones, whose general manner is so endearing, it’s impossible not to get attached to her.
To help him deal with the huge upheaval to come, Conor conjures up a gargantuan monster with the booming voice of Liam Neeson, who sweeps him up from his bedroom window at precisely 12.07am every night to tell him fantastical fables.
There are echoes of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, only this one’s a Massive Angry Tree with fiery embers for eyes, and the more sinister Babadook, in that he’s a beastly fantasy doubling as a coping strategy for mental distress.
Conor and his mum share a love of drawing and watercolours, so each of the Monster’s tales are animated with an inky, splotched artistry that has a handmade feel to it.
Patrick Ness, author of the 2011 book, has written an exemplary screenplay that’s tight, pacey yet scattered with affecting symbolism. Eugenio Caballero, production designer of Pan’s Labyrinth, nails the damp, earthy eeriness of rural England, while director JA Bayona, of excellent Spanish horror film The Orphanage, brings his mastery of suspense to the table. Another unexpected highlight is Sigourney Weaver, as Conor’s stuffy grandmother with hidden depths.
As beautifully acted as it is animated, A Monster’s Call doesn’t provide answers or promise redemption; there’s a debate to had about whether it’s suitable for children at all. But there’s no denying its power as a deeply moving modern fairytale.
A Monster Calls is in cinemas from New Year's Day