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Posts Tagged ‘Never Let Me Go’

If you watched Never Let Me Go without captions and with the sound turned down, you’d have no idea of the kind of film it is. (There’s no reason why you’d want to, but still.) The trailer was deliberately circumspect about the narrative territory this film inhabits, too. My parents were thinking about going to see it, assuming it was another very well-mannered romantic drama about young people coming of age and getting to grips with adult emotions.
 
 

Well, to some extent that’s true, but only marginally. Even my own oversensitive antennae only detected the barest of hints from the advertising as to what this film is, but the fact that the novel it’s based on (written by Kazuo Ishiguro) was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award as well as the Booker Prize will no doubt tip you off: Never Let Me Go is an SF movie, and quite possibly the best in years.

It’s understandable why the film-makers have done their best to bury this fact: the expectations of the standard SF blockbuster crowd would be grievously disappointed by a movie totally bereft of aliens, spacecraft, robots, laser guns, psychic powers and time machines, while the mainstream audience would stay away in droves because of exactly the same expectations. Nevertheless, no serious definition of the genre could exclude this film.

Having said that, the science in Never Let Me Go is extremely nebulous: the story occurs in an alternative history where medical science made an unspecified breakthrough in the 1950s, resulting in a massive increase in longevity. The ramifications of this are not immediately made apparent, but we are introduced to them through the lives of three children, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. At first they seem to be simply pupils at a rather odd private school in 1978 – they and all the other pupils have been conditioned to never, ever leave the grounds and to take great pains in looking after themselves. They wear odd bracelets that track their location. A delivery of second-hand toys is a great event.

The truth eventually emerges for us and them: the defeat of cancer and other diseases, and the increase in longevity, has created an enormous and ceaseless demand for donor organs. All the pupils at the school are clones, not legally human, being raised until the day comes when their own organs can be harvested for the benefit of people in the outside world.

This is not an especially new idea – something similar formed the basis of Michael Bay’s 2005 flop, The Island, while I myself prefer Michael Marshall Smith’s short story on this theme, To Receive is Better (last words: ‘I’m having a few things back.’). But what makes Never Let Me Go a compelling and powerful film is its treatment of it. This is not a loud or brash or openly manipulative film, nor do the characters respond in the ways we’d expect.

They have grown up in this world and become desensitised to the relentless (and to us, almost inconceivable) horror that underpins every moment of their existence. None of them ever considers trying to avoid the ghastly fate their entire lives have been leading towards. The most anyone hopes for is to defer the moment their donations begin, and to this end they take solace in rumours that such a thing is possible: that a couple who truly love each other will be granted a few extra years of life.

As you may be able to discern, this is a story rich in potential metaphor, which the film presents as understatedly as anything else. Its power – which is considerable – comes from the tension between the ordinariness of the images on the screen and the terrible nature of the film’s world. (The question inevitably arises: how desensitised have we ourselves become? What atrocities do we turn a blind eye to, for our own benefit?) As a result, the wider world of the movie stays out of focus, even though it must surely bear only the most superficial of resemblances to our own. I expect this is fruitful territory for anyone who would dismiss the film on the grounds of implausibility. I’m not sure. I think this film is worryingly plausible in many ways.

In any case, the focus is on the relationships between the trio as they make sense of what and who they are, and come to terms with the moment of ‘completion’. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley play the three leads as adults, and they are all superb. Mulligan has the toughest gig, as a character who’s naturally quite passive and accepting, but remains effortlessly watchable throughout. This may be one of our last chances to enjoy Andrew Garfield’s English accent for the next few years – in any case, he’s almost unrecognisable from The Social Network. Knightley manages to remain somewhat sympathetic, even though Ruth isn’t an especially nice person. No-one else in the cast really gets much to do, though Charlotte Rampling is good as the headmistress of the school: someone who, though sympathetic to the children’s situation, still only really thinks of them as ‘nearly human’. Mark Romanek’s direction is effectively invisible, which I mean as a very definite compliment.

The smoke and mirrors with the way this film has been pitched to audiences doesn’t seem to have quite paid off: it’s hanging in there in theatres, but it doesn’t have the buzz around it that certain other films seem to have acquired, nor indeed the critical plaudits. Never Let Me Go may be too understated, too restrained, for many people’s taste, but to me it seemed virtually perfect and deeply, deeply moving. I use the word unmissable very rarely, but I’m going to use it here: never mind what genre it belongs to, this is a brilliant, unmissable film.

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