Movie reviews: Silence, A Monster Calls, Why Him?

Silence 5/5
Movie reviews: Silence, A Monster Calls, Why Him?

Silence (15A) opens in 1640, with two Jesuit priests, Fr Sebastião (Andrew Garfield) and Fr Francisco (Adam Driver), dispatched to Japan to ascertain the whereabouts of Christian missionary Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Their mission, however, isn’t simply one of discovery: in a period of brutal Christian persecution in Japan, Fr Ferreira is accused of becoming an apostate and denying the one true religion. Adapted from Shûsaku Endô’s novel by Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks, with Scorsese directing, Silence is both a gripping tale and a complex, involving meditation on faith.

Hunted by the authorities, with a bounty on their heads, Fr Sebastião and Fr Francisco are the only Catholic priests in Buddhist Japan, their God-inspired vocation bolstered by the fervour with which their message is received by the Japanese who practise their Christian rites in secret.

Scorsese doesn’t spare us the sordid details: the film opens with a vividly depicted scene of torture, one of many scattered throughout the story as the faithful are tested to their limits, their prayers and agonies unanswered by God’s apparent silence. Vividly rendered by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the film is beautifully constructed, the squalid mise-en-scene often shrouded in mist and fog as the principals grasp after truth and meaning, with Andrew Garfield first among equals in an Oscar-worthy performance. A companion piece of sorts to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and similar in theme and tone to The Mission (1986) and Black Robe (1991), Silence is a superbly nuanced and bracingly realistic exploration of belief and faith.

Adapted by Patrick Ness from his bestselling YA novel, A Monster Calls (12A) centres on 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young man struggling to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness and the bullies who torment him at school.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Conor’s life is turned upside-down one night when he is visited by a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who erupts from the yew tree in the graveyard beside Conor’s home with the demand that Conor do the one thing he is incapable of doing: tell himself the truth.

What follows is an absorbing tale of grief, rage, guilt and fear, as Conor faces the kind of horror no child should ever have to countenance. JA Bayona directs with a real flair for the visual imagery that underpins the story: Conor is a promising artist with a vibrant imagination, and the offbeat fairytale stories told by the Monster are rendered in fabulous hand-drawn animation.

It’s an emotionally complex tale too, with little by way of simplistic solutions to Conor’s tragic circumstance on offer: Conor finds himself battling with his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) and failing to bond with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), all the while experiencing the terror of losing his dying mother. Lewis MacDougall puts in a terrifically intense performance for such a tender talent, and receives strong support from a hauntingly vulnerable Felicity Jones and the stiffly unbending Weaver.

Dark and weighty in tone and theme, A Monster Calls is a tour-de-force exploration of death and grief that will deeply touch any audience.

Why Him? (15) stars Bryan Cranston as Ned Fleming, a doting father who is horrified to discover that his beloved daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating the most inappropriate man any right-thinking father could imagine: Laird Mayhew (James Franco), a foul-mouthed Silicon Valley mogul covered in tattoos who has no filter and no appreciation of the social niceties.

Invited to California for the Christmas holidays, Ned resolves to put an end to the romance – but he has reckoned without Laird’s sleazy charm. Written by Jonah Hill, Ian Helfer and John Hamburg, with Hamburg directing, Why Him? is an offbeat comedy of manners that has a quaintly old-fashioned feel – indeed, Cranston’s amiable portrayal of fatherly frustration may put older viewers in mind of Spencer Tracy.

The subtext here, of course, is that the older generation doesn’t understand the generation coming through (Ned’s business is in paper printing, app inventor Laird lives in a digital world), and the early sections find Cranston, Franco and Deutch developing a real chemistry from their apparently irreconcilable dilemma (Megan Mullally, playing Ned’s wife Barb, has terrific fun with a succession of throwaway one-liners).

Much of the cast’s good work is undone, however, by a script that appears all too happy to lean on a Meet the Fockers-style personality clash, and the story quickly runs out to steam, its gentle humour replaced with a succession of gross-out gags and a lazy satire on Californian hipster excess that is the comic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

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