“A Monster Calls” (2016): An Honest Film About Grief

“A look into the dark fantasy film, A Monster Calls, and how director J.A Bayona, and author, Patrick Ness, use mythology and imagery to deliver a powerful message about grief and healing.”

The film follows 13 year old Connor O’Malley, and how he struggles with the inevitable death of his terminally ill mother. Grappling with the fear and dread of his worst nightmare becoming a reality, Connor unknowingly calls upon a yew tree that comes to life at 12.07am every night to tell him three stories, and in return, Connor has to tell the yew tree the truth about his nightmare (the untimely death of his mother).

Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, the film beautifully articulates grief and the intricate emotions that come with it. With the help of the visual effects by Bayona, the film brought to life the complexities of despair that people struggle understanding their entire lives.

Yew trees have historically been linked to death, sorrow and despair. This has been deeply ingrained in Greek and Roman cultures, as the Romans used to use the branches of yew trees to light funeral pyres. That is one of the many reasons why these trees are majorly found in cemeteries and churchyards, much like in the film. 

The yew also came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture, as their drooping branches could grow into full fledged trees if they touched the ground. Shakespeare was no stranger to the yew’s qualities, as he has referenced Macbeth to concoct a deadly drink which includes “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse.” 

After knowing all this, it comes as no surprise as to why an ancient yew tree was chosen to be the one to help Connor come to terms with the fact that his mother was dying, and that he has to let her go. 

In this film, we see Connor’s grandmother step in as the sole caretaker of Lizzie, Connor’s mother. She’s seen as an overscrupulous individual, with incredibly high standards for Connor, when in reality, she’s just trying to remain strong for him and establish some sort of stability in his short, turbulent life. However, Connor fails to see this, and ultimately labels her as the “bad guy”. 

Throughout the entirety of this period, Connor doesn’t realise that he’s the one who needs to be saved from himself, not from his grandmother. Thus, The Yew depicts fairytale stories in a series of watercolor images (much like the drawings his mother used to create), teaching Connor how sometimes, the truth of life “feels like a cheat”, and that there aren’t always heroes and villains. Most of the time, there are only people who are in between, as we are all human and have limitations. 

Towards the end, right before Connor’s mother is about to die, The Yew Tree shows him his worst nightmare – him letting go of his mother’s hand, and her subsequently falling into the abyss.

The yew tree forces him to admit to himself that he wants “it all to be over”, that he couldn’t take the pain anymore, even if it meant losing his mother. The Yew explained that this didn’t make him a bad, selfish person – just a normal one. 

With this admittance, Conor can now move on and speak his truth – that he didn’t want his mother to go, but he also couldn’t bear the pain of knowing that she’ll be leaving. 

Although the film received critical acclaim and praise for the acting and the mature approach to such a heavy subject, some have criticised the subject matter to be “too dark” for a young audience. 

In any case, A Monster Calls was one of the most moving and emotionally raw films of 2016, that didn’t obscure the grim details of losing a loved one. It serves as a lesson for people of all ages of the importance of speaking your truth and admitting that you’re in pain. 

By: Nabilah Hassan

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