After a few trailers that portrayed this to me as something that could be a fantastical adventure with heart akin to something like ‘The BFG’, I was very pleased and surprised to find a film totally grounded in its production, moving in story and boasting wonderful performances from the cast.
From the off, we are given a film rooted in reality. A quiet Northern English village surrounded by rolling hills, a railway and populated by old brick houses overlooked by a large chapel and thousand year old Yew tree. It looks wonderfully scenic and everything from the colour to the framing and the lighting is as natural as you can get.
12 year old Lewis MacDougall plays Conor with sobering realism. We may have seen this sort of thing before, but it never gets easier to watch or less engrossing. Facing real vindictive bullies, a broken family and the illness of his young mother on a day to day basis isn’t easy at all, and MacDougall has the right balance of sensitivity and brewing anger with the world for us to relate to him but also never to underestimate his resolve. As the opening narration reminds us, he’s too old to be a child, but too young to be a man. He deserves the praise, for he helps deliver the films powerful moments all on his own shoulders and that’s not an easy thing to do with the subject matter.
Sigourney Weaver is a pleasant surprise in a small yet sobering role with that gravitas as a performer we can expect from her, able to evolve as an actor with age to being the Grandmother who is crucially important to her family. Felicity Jones also dazzles, showing how good an actress she is. It’s easy to forget her role as galactic hero Jyn Erso from ‘Rogue One’ here, because this is a role where she physically and mentally plays the part. You can hear the cracks in her voice, see the tired bags under her eyes and the hair loss treatment taking its toll. She never overplays it, but just keeps it real and focuses on the strength of a mother and son bond, as hard as it may be sometimes.
Liam Neeson avoids shooting up the screen in an action role again and does nothing but carry us along with his sincere and powerful Irish voice acting. Lending voice and mo-cap to our Yew Monster, an impressive CGI creation that never becomes something silly, Neeson is the voice of reason. The voice we all want to listen to and find comfort with, and the voice to challenge us when we get stubborn in our behaviour. It’s a brilliant role and you have to admire Neeson for what he evokes in just his voice and how he paints pictures with his words, and also works along young MacDougall for a perfect child/fantastical monster pairing.
The Monster is something we all have witnessed as a child, or even adults. Does the ‘Monster’ in the film refer to the most obvious element? Or does it refer to the real monsters that lurk within and scare us – illness, broken family, failure, disappointment? It’s these little messages that are told through a couple of brilliant watercolour animations that help gives us a moment to escape (just like Conor does) but without ever forgetting the main story of Lizzie’s situation.
It’s a story that’s as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming, never becoming overly dramatic in subject matter, but allowing it to be dramatic in visual story-telling, using some cracking special effects and sequences to illustrate the internal dreams and nightmares of young Conor in ways that don’t hold back the powerful message it’s trying to tell.
It’s a film too young to be an adult film, but too old to be a children’s film. All generations should watch this and remember what it means to be human, to be afraid, and to need help now and then from any source you can get it from before it’s too late.