TIFF 2016: 'A Monster Calls', 'The Secret Scripture' and 'The Limehouse Golem'

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls (2016)

From Liam Neeson to Catholic Priests and Victorian murderers, Toronto International Film Festival 2016 just can't shake that monster feeling.

If there’s a theme emerging from TIFF so far: monsters. At least films featuring monsters seem to be the ones I’m going for. What that says about my psychological state I will leave for someone better qualified to pass judgement. As with prior coverage, the monsters come in different shapes. The first one, leftover from day 2, looks like a tree and sounds a bit like Liam Neeson.

A Monster Calls brings Patrick Ness’ work to the big screen. His young-adult novel of the same name features fantastical stories that exist to help a lost boy deal with grief. When the film, from The Orphanage director J. A. Bayona, reveals its true intent, there were plenty of sniffles around the screening room. Even the trailer has brought on tears for those revisiting later.

This powerful effect doesn’t seem so likely at the beginning, when the film resembles a stripped down version of Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s also an underwritten bullying sub-plot and a performance from Sigourney Weaver that feels like she’s auditioning for a BBC period drama.

Such quibbles matter little, however, when newcomer Lewis MacDougall’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s cancer turns the story into a real tearjerker. We also get a few impressive visual effects as Liam Neeson comes to life to spin tales and smash things up. All in all, A Monster Calls is a highly satisfying film.

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in The Secret Scripture (2016)

The same cannot be said for today’s 9am screening. It had tough competition to follow after Manchester by the Sea and Nocturnal Animals, but in the end it couldn’t even scrape into the passable category. It’s a shame because on paper it looks so good.

The Secret Scripture sees Jim Sheridan return to Ireland with a cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Theo James, Jack Reynor and Aidan Turner. It’s more Irish Catholic misery as elderly Rose (Redgrave) recounts to Eric Bana how she came to be locked in a mental institute for half a century. In the past, Rooney Mara plays the young Rose walking towards disaster.

It’s a depressing tale of unjust punishment and persecution by men who expect to get their own way. For a while it plays out like a lesser version of Brooklyn, in that it’s a pristine period drama hitting the right notes without trying anything new. Thereafter similarities fall away as The Secret Scripture collapses into a horrible web of appalling twists and nonsensical plot developments. People laughed and people left, and no one seemed to like it all that much.

I decided to go for a quieter day at the fest, and saw only one more film this day. Before that, though, I had to find the cinema, a stroll that took me to a 7-Eleven in which I witnessed an inept shoplifter shoveling heated hotdog sausages down the front of his pants. The staff, far from being perturbed, took the opportunity to film it on their cell phones.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem (2016)

With that unexpected entertainment behind me, and following a long walk around the block to find myself at the back of the queue, it was time to get The Limehouse Golem under way, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s Victorian era murder mystery, in which Bill Nighy’s inspector attempts to stop a brutal killer. There’s plenty of bloody violence and a hefty dose of theatricality in Juan Carlos Medina's film, as Nighy, stepping in for his sadly departed friend Alan Rickman, takes on his first murder case while battling to save the life of Olivia Cooke’s benighted actress.

The Limehouse Golem is stylish and atmospheric, but the twists and turns come delivered on a plate, rendering the story a little dull. Clearly, others knew more than me in advance, for despite the lengthy queue, the screening was far from full considering it was a world premiere. Still, it wasn’t the worst film of the day so that’s something.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.