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Film Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010; Directed by Mark Romanek)

Tenderly adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Never Let Me Go takes onscreen form as a wrenching low-key elegy for youth, love, mortality, and widely-accepted conceptions of the value of human life. Shot in a drained palette of greys, browns, and faded greens, long-promising director Mark Romanek’s most accomplished feature effort imagines an alternate social history of post-war Britain that couches the common sci-fi theme of human cloning in the familiar literary environs of the boarding-school bildungsroman and the tragic, understated romance. And though it adapts and repurposes Ishiguro’s themes into a cinematic vision that is both more concrete and tangible as well as more spare and poetic than his novel, it vitally refuses to relinquish the implications of those themes for more comforting and palatable iterations that might have lain within easy reach.

The central trio of characters in this story are introduced to us as children attending an austere, pastoral English country boarding school called Hailsham. Kathy H (Isobel Meikle-Small) is a quiet, thoughtful, sympathetic girl who is bosom buddies with the slightly more impulsive and easily-led Ruth (Ella Purnell). They both gravitate towards the awkward Tommy (Charlie Rowe), Kathy as an empathetic presence to lead him out of the shell he retreats into when teased by classmates, and Ruth as an eventual physical lover.

Never-Let-Me-Go-movie-poster-1-406x600Hailsham has a big secret, though, and it’s revealed to the children by the seditious teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) before she is unceremoniously removed for violating the expected discourse of the school. The children of Hailsham are indeed “special”, as the headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) is fond of telling them. They are clones being groomed with the expressed purpose to be organ donors in young adulthood, kept sheltered and healthy so that their bodies’ bounty can be harvested and transplanted into the bodies of the rest of the population to keep it disease-free and long-lived. The elaborate educational structure of Hailsham, including lessons, sports, toy-markets, and an art competition to contribute to a mysterious gallery, constitutes velvet-glove indoctrination, per Miss Lucy. It’s a prison whose chains are forged of lace, a muslin lie to overlay an illusion of comfort, achievement, and structured milestones onto the essentially empty existences of human organ farms (a sharp critique of do-gooding liberal uplift lurks just beneath the surface, though the bleeding-heart tendencies are soon revealed to be more laudable than they might initially appear).

If Lucy’s revelations sink in at all, it doesn’t show in the actions of the adult versions of the trio. In a post-school commune called the Cottages, Ruth (adult iteration played by Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) carry on a noisy sexual relationship that Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is forced to endure. She nurtures a purer romantic affection for Tommy and a saint-like fondness for Ruth, and projects her desire for tenderness onto her chosen profession of a carer, a psychological and emotional support worker who shepherds her fellows through the pain and isolation of their donations until “completion” (ie. death). She grows closer to both Ruth and especially Tommy after the conflicts of their younger years, especially when the possibility of a romance-related deferment of the donation process (connected to that mysterious art gallery) presents itself as a fleeting promise of reprieve.

Romanek’s adaptation of Ishiguro’s suggestively sketched alternate universe often makes explicit what was merely implied on the page (dates are given, setting the events through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s). But he puts heartening artistic faith in symbolic images to convey the text’s invocations of the ephemerality of existence: a bird perched on the handle of a teapot, a beached fishing boat, debris snagged on barbed wire fencing and fluttering fruitlessly in the wind (Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is all the more superb for the film’s drab colour-scale).

His young cast are on the same wavelength, wordlessly conveying the weight of their approaching pre-ordained fates with sublime skill (as does his younger cast, who eerily resemble the better-known actors portraying their older selves). Knightley’s natural chin-jutting defiance bursts out in the petulant Ruth, whose relationship with Tommy is more about denying Kathy his company than gaining it for herself, and the guilt she feels over her actions in her waning, post-donation days is palpable. Garfield, now known more for confident swagger in The Social Network and as the new Spider-man, is sheer gangly hesitation, but with a steely survival instinct that Kathy’s return to his life activates. And Mulligan, wasted recently as a breathy Daisy Buchanan in a gawdy Gatsby, is riveting as both a performer and a narrator, the glowing soul of this fully-felt film.

In animating Ishiguro’s painful and moving narrative with such technical and aesthetic skill, however, Romanek leaves its thematic core more exposed. The nagging question at the centre of Never Let Me Go is never quite satisfactorily answered: why don’t the donors who want more time, more of a life for themselves, make an escape? Romanek doesn’t let us miss the mechanisms of electronic monitoring and control at both Hailsham and the Cottages: the donors swipe electronic bracelets when entering both the school and the safehouse, and CCTV cameras peer from the corners of many shots.

But what wins out is Ishiguro’s more metaphoric suggestion that obedience to official institutions and an amorphous sense of duty compel these characters to accept a life-path that would spark rebellion in freer spirits. As a Japanese-born citizen of Britain, Ishiguro has particular experience of two cultural contexts in which stiff-lipped acceptance of rigid conditions is a matter of honour in closed-mentality island societies, even if (especially if) that acceptance is a precondition of misery (the lonely butler narrator of Ishiguro’s defining work The Remains of the Day embodies this state of mind). One can only imagine that American donors would make a run for it, the reaction of a more restless people in an unending pursuit of happiness.

Never Let Me Go is a deeply beautiful and finally moving piece of work, despite such quibbles. Its closing message equates the brief lives of the donors to the all-too-quick passage of our own days, and urges appreciation of the small fortunes of our experiences rather than lingering regret at what was missed out on. Romanek’s affecting film visualizes Ishiguro’s imaginative fable in the terms of another great English man of letters, the Venerable Bede. Human lives, as Bede puts it, are as the “swift flight of the sparrow” through a warm hall in winter time. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go sketches a belief that we can only appreciate the warmth and light of this swift flight as we prepare to emerge again into the cold darkness, and Romanek’s film renders this sketch tenderly tangible.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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