LFF Day 2: A Monster Calls & The Handmaiden

LFF Day 2

Fantastical trauma counseling and opulent Gothic fetishism on London Film Festival Day 2.


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Orphanage‘s J.A. Bayona began his career as an acolyte of Guillermo Del Toro and in A Monster Calls he finds his own Pan’s Labyrinth but one where the monsters make house calls.

Set in contemporary England, the film follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), an odd, artistically inclined loner whose sparky mother (Felicity Jones) is rapidly being extinguished by a terminal illness.

Tormented by a recurring nightmare, mercilessly bullied at school, and faced with the prospect of life with his exacting, matter-of-fact grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), one night as Conor sits at his desk drawing the giant yew tree from the nearby cemetery comes to life and pays him a visit.

Adapted by Patrick Ness from his novel of the same name, based on an idea by the then dying Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls presents this twig-crested and fiery-veined creature (voiced with gravelly authority by Liam Neeson), and the physical destruction he wreaks, both deliberate and otherwise, as a manifestation of Conor’s grief and rage. It’s a way for him to deal with his emotions in a world that, like his well-meaning but flaky father (Toby Kebbell), is all too willing to ignore him or give him a free pass; a world that, with its closed doors and distorting windows, seems designed to exclude him.

The tales, or lessons, the Monster imparts take the form of fairy-tales, rendered in luminous, shifting watercolor, full of princes and apothecaries, that serves to illustrate a painful emotional complexity Conor is only beginning to discover for himself.

Óscar Faura’s sharp autumnal cinematography and Fernando Velázquez dark yet hopeful score perfectly compliment A Monster Calls‘ keen emotional register, which Bayona expertly keeps from ever tipping over into gloominess or sentimentality. The same is true of the wan MacDougall, who proves himself a worthy addition to 2016’s roll-call of remarkable child actors (see recently: Alex Hibbert in Moonlight, Sennia Nanua in The Girl With All The Gifts, the whole juvenile cast of Captain Fantastic).

The film benefits hugely, too, from the presence of Weaver, whose panicked eyes when confronted with the aftermath of Conor’s rage reveal a woman whose whole ordered existence is blowing apart.

If you’re planning on seeing one coming-of-age story involving a Swamp Thing-like creature, give 9th Life Of Louis Drax – a film so dull I didn’t bother to review it – a miss. A Monster Calls gets to the root of it.


4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

What is it with the LFF and the LGBT experience that, in recent years, seems to have made for so many – and varied – masterpieces?

Unlike last year’s Carol, though, or this year’s Moonlight, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden delves deep into human duplicity and ugliness as much as beauty and self-expression.

Returning to the Gothic aesthetic that marked 2013’s Stoker, the film tells the story of Sook-he (Kim Tae-ri), an ambitious young thief working in a den of human traffickers in 1930s Korea; then occupied by Japan. To this extent, there are even color-coded subtitles. Cultivated con man “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) offers a part in the score of a lifetime.

All she has to do is adopt the role of handmaiden to heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and convince her to elope with the Count so that he may claim her fortune. Instead, Sook-he finds her passions increasingly entwined with those of her emotionally fragile, possibly unstable mistress.

The house they occupy – a redbrick English mansion with a traditional Japanese wing – is the domain of Hideko’s self-loathing Japanophile steward Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a black-tongued bibliophile whose obsessions run far more twisted than just the written word. Suffice to say, when a now-oversized denizen of Olboy makes a cameo, the appetites suggested onscreen are more than simply culinary.

Exactingly shot and yet subtly askew, the pristine surroundings almost border on the dreary in their refinement were its occupants not so psychologically, and psychosexually, compelling. The gentle filing down of a tooth becomes an intimate, sensual act; the playful trying on a corset provides a moment of levity from an unprepared Sook-he.

For a film that is largely about seeing – at one point a shadow visible through a shōji ensures the departure of a would-be eavesdroppermuch is hidden behind a screen of subjectivity. In one scene, Chan-wook obscures one participant in a conversation behind a window lattice. Everyone is playing a role, and it takes until Part 2 for the lies and perversions to truly surface.

Provocative and elegant, languid and urgent, and yes, sexually explicit, in The Handmaiden is ultimately all about the women. The relationship with Sook-he and Hideko may be founded on deception, but their chemistry is undeniably real; perhaps the only undeniably real thing.

Condemning the perverse while embracing the fetishistic, Chan-wook’s latest walks the precarious line between male gaze and artistic commentary. Men are, however, presented as either predatory or pathetic – or both – and, from shoes to silver balls, this fraught doubling down is an intrinsic part of the Gothic.

Further excuses aside, it’s all in service of an astonishing work of cinema.


Mea culpa: I skipped Andrea Arnold’s latest, American Honey. Much as I’m an apologist for late-career Shia LaBeouf, I couldn’t quite face a two-and-a-half-hour-long sun-drenched Millennial road-trip

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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