It would actually be nice if the majority of people who saw Never Let Me Go at the cinemas didn’t know anything about what it was about. I’d say this applies to almost every movie, but obviously some more than others – and this film would definitely benefit from a ‘blank canvas’ approach. No expectations, no plot predictions, no pigeon-holing. For those who can accept this, viewing Never Let Me Go will undoubtedly prove a rewarding, surprisingly unusual – some might say unique – experience. But I understand that people like to read the blurb on the back cover; they like to watch the extended trailers – it doesn’t matter how much of the plot gets given away, how much of the movie ‘experience’ is wasted in those precious 3 minutes, curiosity gets the better of all of us.
It’s a shame though, because Never Let Me Go deserves more than to be just labelled as a sci-fi drama. It’s as much a sci-fi drama as Children of Men is a sci-fi actioner – i.e. you can see these elements at play within the film, but they are most definitely not what defines it. Indeed Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the best-selling 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro uses classic dystopian themes merely as a backdrop for what is, essentially, a moody morality play about humanity, friendship, love and life. And death.
The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.
Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.
By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.
It’s 1978 and Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are childhood friends who live at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. They have to abide by a strict rule structure, and can never leave the school boundary – not even to retrieve a stray ball. They live a very sheltered life, with no knowledge of the outside world, and a strange emphasis placed on both having perfect health and on creating personally reflective artwork. One day a new teacher decides to break the school’s strict code of ‘silence’, and tell the kids the truth...that they will never lead normal lives, and are destined to be organ donors, and to die long before they reach their full potential. They never see that teacher again.
Within the trio Tommy is the most emotionally vulnerable – bullied by the other boys and prone to angry outbursts – and Kathy takes a shine to him. But Ruth, a more conventionally pretty girl than Kathy (and thus also much more confident) notices the bond developing between the other two and decides to get closer to Tommy.
We cut to a few years later and the three friends – now teenagers – are moved to ‘the Cottages’, a halfway station before they progress to donation and, eventually, what is called ‘completion’. There Tommy and Ruth are just one of several couples, and Kathy is made to feel yet more of a loner. But as the encroaching donation stage grows yet closer, the bonds between them start to fracture – the realisation that they will never live a full and fruitful life becoming increasingly hard to accept. Hearing about a get-out clause which allows some of the Halisham students to ‘defer’ their donation stage for a few years, they set out to try and fulfil the criteria. It’s simple: they just have to prove that they are in love. But the question is, which two of the three are really in love – Tommy and Ruth, who are actually a couple, or Tommy and Kathy, who have always had that certain bond ever since they were kids?
Never Let Me Go is more than just another sci-fi story about clones – the alternate period setting alone sets it apart; makes you think twice. You notice subtle references to doing it for the good of humanity, how soon there will be battery farms of clones for harvesting, the subjects (or victims) logged in and out as the enter a building – all of this goes on in the background to remind you that this is an alternate past and present, similar but somehow different, tinkered with at a sci-fi level. At its core, however, the story it is a reflection on existence, mortality and basically living your life to the full. I haven’t read the book, by the Japanese-born British author, but it’s the second novel he has won the Booker Prize for, and also the second film adaptation from his work (his previous award-winning bestseller was Remains of the Day, which was made into a multiple-Oscar-nominated movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and I can see why it is so acclaimed. It works on so many different levels – as a commentary on the way we live our lives, and the way we respond to death; simply as a tale of love and friendship, and the sacrifices we make, the bonds we can’t break; or even as a slight against the inhumanity behind cloning (albeit this message appears to be more an afterthought than an overt intention).
Most importantly it attempts to address the daily grind and inherent restrictions placed upon us when living in such a structured society. Many of us live our life a certain way: we follow the path of education, jobseeking, careers – in amidst it all we hope to ‘find’ love, have a family and grow old within that unit. Days, months, years pass by as we follow this routine, and then – before you know it – your time is up. Sometimes this is after a long life, and you can see it coming: the first of a series of heart-attacks slowly punctuating your twilight years; sometimes it comes to soon, cut short with no forewarning, your life taken away ‘before your time’. But the point is clear: when that day comes, it never feels like you’ve had enough time. And, knowing that, you should live whatever life you have to the fullest.
Much looks to have been lost in translation however, as Never Let Me Go may indeed have ambitious, stately pretentions, towards having a ‘higher meaning’, but – in order for them to hold together – you really need them to be bonded to a story about well-developed characters that we truly care about. That’s not to say that the parts played by the trio of core cast members are not rounded and organically grown, but that we unfortunately only see glimpses across their lives – sometimes years pass – and, even with a narration by the protagonist Kathy, it does not quite make them into complete entities.
The cast are all well chosen – both the child actors and their adult counterparts, as well as the school staff headed up by a stern, suitably imposing Charlotte Rampling. The three kids actually look quite like the respective grown-ups – and Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley all acquit themselves well as the latter. Mulligan stands out head and shoulders above the other two, perfect as the thoughtful, reflective Kathy, easily the strongest of the three friends. She brings to her character a sense of loyalty, love and genuine decency, and her third act ruminations on life and mortality are certainly the ones that will stay with you for the longest after the end credits have rolled. Garfield’s perfectly-coiffeured hairstyle bugged me throughout, as did his dress – kind of that intentionally unintentionally scruffy look (bet he’s just testing out his new Peter Parker / Spiderman look). But, in spite of the disjointed narrative, he does well with his fractured character, playing the vulnerable and impulsive Tommy with a different kind of strength than Kathy’s. He believes that he will make three, or even four donations before ‘completing’, where less strong-willed individuals may survive but one. Knightley initially seems like the odd one out – where the other two are aged seamlessly across the different eras, she already looks older than the others – and her character does not seem all that unfamiliar for the girl: she knows she’s pretty, and she knows how to get a guy’s attention, and she also does not really want to think much further than tomorrow. Her character arc is without a doubt the most powerful and touching. Will she ever find redemption for the broken hearts that she has kept apart?
Directed by Mark Romanek, from a script by The Beach’s Alex Garland, the approach taken is one of minimalism, with methodically contemplative pacing throughout. The movie is little over an hour and a half, but it feels a great deal longer, yet covers (on the face of it) a lot less than the book. Romanek appears to be more interested in painting broad strokes, depicting these ‘grown’ subjects as naive, inexperienced individuals who know little of the world around them, or indeed of how to interact with one another (they take a great deal from watching TV). And whilst the initial 60s school setting sets the tone, and establishes this as a highly unusual sci-fi – a period sci-fi – and the middle act furthers the dynamics between the trio, flaws in logic start to crop up, and the whole sub-story involving the “meaning of the artwork” comes across as far too much of a stretch. Even for the thought-processes of an inexperienced clone.
You’re still left with a powerful message – food for thought about the way you live your life, the way you face (or ignore) your own mortality – but it feels somewhat diluted amidst the underdeveloped characters and disjointed plotting. I wouldn’t say that the production goes as far as to be pretentious, but it has an air about it where it seems to think it is more important than it is. Actually, at the end of it, the themes running through this narrative are not a million miles away from those in Blade Runner, a film which is the polar opposite to this in attitude – an ostensible sci-fi thriller that purports to be nothing more, but still manages to incorporate an introspective slice of humanity in amidst the Marlowe-esque narration and futuristic action. Never Let Me Go is a good film nonetheless, but with a little bit more substance and focus it could have easily been a great movie.
All in all, however, the last couple of years have been absolutely fantastic for British sci-fi – proving, once again, that really good movies seldom need a big budget and grand effects – and I will continue to applaud any and everybody who attempts to make these kind of refreshingly different dramas. From Moon to Monsters, and here with Never Let Me Go, it’s clear the future now comes in 52 different flavours and it’s well worth trying every single one of them.
Never Let Me Go is another fantastic new Brit sci-fi, following on from Moon and Monsters, and utilising the same unusual methodology, where the sci-fi part is an initial conceit which is painted as merely a backdrop for the very human story that unfolds before the viewer. Here we follow three friends on their unquestionably short voyage through life, learning about themselves, yearning for true love and facing up to their own impending mortality. It leaves you feeling drained, tired and desperate to wake up and make the most of the next day. Even if you just get up and go back to work, this effect is clear evidence that this is a thinking-man’s drama to say the least. That said, despite the fact that I have not read the acclaimed book that it was based upon, I have a feeling that something was lost in translation – there certainly seems to be something missing from the production, with a disjointed narrative that never quite allows us to get a handle on these unusual characters. For all the importance of the message it was trying to get across, the movie does not take enough time to establish those that will convey it to us, and so you leave the piece somewhat underwhelmed by where it all has led to. Still, as bold new modern ‘sci-fi’, this is another welcome entry in an important new chapter of British film history. If you can still catch it at the cinema then it’s definitely worth a watch, but don’t be disheartened if you’ve missed it, a purportedly region free Blu-ray is already out Stateside.
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