Movie reviews: Liam Neeson's giant in A Monster Calls defies expectations

Two stories defy expectations: A mother's hunt for an estranged daughter and a boy in a single-parent home gets in touch with the dark side

This week, two movies are about people whose lives are etched by loss.

In one, a mother rebuilds her life after her daughter runs away, and in the other, a boy's mother is deathly ill, leaving him in the care of one very large, very strange companion.

Julieta (M18, 99 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) comes from Spanish legend Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In, 2011; Volver, 2006). This is his most straightforward work of drama in recent times.

Almodovar is the master of tone-mixing - his serious pieces are tinged by comedy, or horror, or fantasy and thriller elements - but this time, he plays it straight and the result is confident and watchable, if a little underwhelming.

In A Monster Calls, the giant (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not the father figure Conor (Lewis MacDougall) needs.
In A Monster Calls, the giant (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not the father figure Conor (Lewis MacDougall) needs. PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

The title character (played by Adriana Ugarte as a young woman, and by Emma Suarez when older) meets the close friend of her daughter one day in Madrid, an event that will lead her on a hunt for the long-estranged child.

Pivotal moments of Julieta's life are revealed, showing how they shape her personality, which in turn, shapes the events that happen afterwards. The tone is brisk, without much psychological detail, and marked by declarative dialogue in which people speak how they feel.

A lot of things happen to Julieta, television drama-style. She does not quite grow from a stereotypical lovelorn female to strong feminist; there is a neediness to her that does not quite go away and, in fact, gets worse as she ages. Julieta is by no means a complex character, but she possesses an earthy humanity that is compelling.

If it feels sprawling and slight, it might have to do with the source material. Almodovar has adapted the screenplay from three Alice Munro short stories, from her 2004 collection Runaway; perhaps the weakness comes from the joints.

In A Monster Calls, the giant (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not the father figure Conor (Lewis MacDougall) needs. Emma Suarez (above left) and Adriana Ugarte in Julieta.
Emma Suarez (above left) and Adriana Ugarte in Julieta. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

As in Julieta, a missing person animates A Monster Calls (PG, 108 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars). Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has a hole in his life: His single-parent mother (Felicity Jones) is ill and getting sicker by the day. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives abroad and cannot take him in, so he will be in the care of his prickly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he detests. To top it off, a bully is making life at school miserable.

This set-up, taken from the prize-winning 2011 children's novel by Patrick Ness, feels like the start of a feel-good fantasy in which magic enters the life of a child and fixes his problems.

But Conor is an anti-Harry Potter: The magic appears to accomplish very little. The giant (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not the father figure Conor desperately needs and that is just one of the points where the story defies expectations.

Spanish director J. A. Bayona (The Impossible, 2012) infuses the fantasy with a touch of horror - it is tempting to see this as his Pan's Labyrinth (2006), another story about a child in touch with a dark dimension.

There's none of Pan's epic scale here, though. The visuals are lush, but Conor's world is small, English and grim. The light at the end of a long, dark tunnel - if it comes at all - will be hard won.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'Of love lost and a very strange companion'. Print Edition | Subscribe