Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls (2016)

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

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.