Genre: Thriller

Certification: 15

Length: 1hr 57mins

Three pretty schoolgirls on the cusp of adulthood – Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – are abducted. Imprisoned, they fear the worst, but occasional bafflement provides some light relief from their understandable hysteria, when their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), cycles through different personalities during his visits to the girls. It quickly transpires that he is suffering from a mental illness (dissociative identity disorder) and we are privy to his regular therapy sessions, presenting himself to his therapist (Betty Buckley) also, as a range of differing personalities. As the plot deepens, so his story is revealed but unexpectedly, Casey’s story also.

I have no doubt that McAvoy relished in the opportunity to play multiple parts in one hit. However, to do this well, requires commitment, experience and expertise and could have easily remained an unfulfilled challenge. To successfully develop the character of a main protagonist, one usually has the luxury of sticking with one personality and the end result is a depth that is, one hopes, tangible to the audience. But to develop a character that has multiple personalities is a big ask. Director M. Night Shyamalan did not expect McAvoy to display all 24 of Kevin’s personalities, but he did require him to bring several of Kevin’s alter egos to our attention and he does so, admirably. Providing some comedy moments with Hedwig, a child; Patricia, an older lady and Barry, best described as your favourite gay hairdresser, ‘Split’ is almost a one-man show with McAvoy taking centre-stage.

Richardson and Sula portray two teenage schoolgirls as you would expect. With typically perfect make-up, hair and clothes, they do a good job of conveying childlike innocence whilst seeming as helpless as baby rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming car. Casey emerges as the atypical teenage girl, with her own backstory to rival Kevin’s and Taylor-Joy brings intelligent reflection to her character, which moves cleverly from the background, as the quiet girl, to the foreground, as the one you secretly wager might just make it out alive. The implication that both Casey and Kevin have been on both sides of a ‘hunt’ is reflected in the current situation, where she and her friends are clearly victims of a hunt.

The abduction/imprisonment premise has been a popular one in recent years, so the success of such a story is dependent upon a twist; a difference; a crazy subplot. Shyamalan brings these secret ingredients to his tale of horror and the result is a movie that pushes you to the last inch of your seat. Graphic detail, though inhumanly horrific, is sparse but the continued threat of possible outcomes makes for a tense two hours.

Mental health experts may disapprove of the portrayal of this condition which is understandable; but one could argue that Kevin is a criminal who happens to have a disorder (or vice versa) and just as some people with no mental health issues are criminals, surely some people with mental health issues are criminals?

Reviewed by Lisa O’Connor, January 2017 at Cineworld, Brighton.

A Monster Calls

Genre: Fantasy

Certification: 12A

Length: 1hr 48mins

Twelve year old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty rough time. Family is one very poorly mum (Felicity Jones), an absent dad (Toby Kebbell) and a highly-strung grandma (Sigourney Weaver). Throw in a few school bullies and life becomes decidedly bleak. Then, one night, a monster (Liam Neeson) calls … with his gigantic form of intertwined twigs and fearsome eyes that flash with angry flames, he presents as another problem – albeit a rather spectacular one – to add to the list of little Conor’s woes. But Conor secretly anticipates the monster’s visits with suppressed eagerness, so is he as monstrous as first impressions suggest?

MacDougall gives a highly emotive performance, mature beyond his years. Conor is a quiet, reflective child, visibly worn down by the burden of a terminally ill mother, whose gift of the only fulfilling relationship Conor has, is made bittersweet by her illness. MacDougall manifests Conor’s anger, optimism and sheer distress flawlessly and succeeds in allowing differing emotions to spill into each other.

Jones is sweet and natural as Lizzie, Conor’s mum and imparts a pathos without being over-sentimental. The two actors work well together, displaying the close and easy relationship that is surely intended. Having warmed to Conor, it is inevitable that one will not warm to his spiky grandma, so frostily played by Weaver, but with a foreshadowing hint of warmth. Kebbell pops up as ‘Dad’ and does a good job of the loveable but unreliable parent.

But imagination is at the heart of this movie and it turns out that it is full of life, passion and creativity. The monster is lifted directly from Patrick Ness’s award-winning book of the same name, courtesy of talented artist Jim Kay and director J.A. Bayona presents him magnificently, even taking care with the sounds of his dry twigs that comprise his body. Pitched somewhere between Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Pan from Pan’s Labyrinth, Neeson is scary yet comforting; grumpy yet caring; confusing yet knowing. With themes of loneliness and parallels between the real world and the fantasy world, the comparison with Pan’s Labyrinth does not end there, but find out for yourself.

Lastly, special mention must go to the animation department. The telling of tales is magically presented with delicate, flowing animation. This is the trump card of ‘A Monster Calls’ and where the movie excels. Pastel shades and simple outlines give the animated characters a unique beauty and the continuity between scenes within tales is the work of quirkily creative minds.

A gentle fantasy tale, ‘A Monster Calls’ throws into doubt the conventions of that well-known and beloved genre of fairy-tales, yet clearly takes its inspiration from there. And the monster throws everything into doubt for Conor, including reality, as he deals with the latter’s suspicions:

“What is a dream, Conor O’Malley? Who is to say that it is not everything else that is the dream?”

Reviewed by Lisa O’Connor, January 2017 at Cineworld, Brighton.