Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

It’s impossible for me to discuss the particulars of Never Let Me Go without spoiling the plot, so here goes.

Never Let Me Go is an almost unbearably sad story of three people- Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the film’s protagonist, and her friends Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley)- who have been bred specifically to serve as organ donors for others who have been born naturally. Like the meagerly paid Third World workers who toil in ramshackle factories to manufacture the products we take for granted, these “donors” are kept out of sight from the general population- less emotionally messy that way. From childhood, they’re sequestered in an isolated school called Hailsham, where they are taught numerous academic subjects in a way that doesn’t prepare them for the future so much as allow them to mark time before the inevitable. And these are the lucky ones- the administration of Hailsham sees itself as progressive, if you can call encouraging children to hope for the future before slamming the door on these hopes “progressive.”

What seems to turn off the film’s critics is the acceptable the characters have for their fate. However, it felt right to me. Since they were born, these children have been brought up to obey their elders and betters and not to question what they’re told about the world. They’re kept isolated from anything that might contradict what they already know, and are fed rumors about the horrors that face those who run away. All their lives, the characters in Never Let Me Go are told that their only worth is as spare parts for others, so it seems somehow right that they wouldn’t try to escape their fate for fear that they wouldn’t fulfill their appointed “purpose.”

Besides, what would people have this be? The Island, in which characters who have been raised in captivity suddenly morph into motorcycle daredevils and shoot-‘em-up action stars? Give me a break. When a person has spent his or her entire life clinging to a shred of hope, it’s the more mundane things that begin to sustain them- Lucy’s childhood dreams of owning a horse, or the art projects the students are assigned with the promise that the best will be selected to be shown in a gallery. As an adult, Kathy becomes a “carer,” tending to other donors and shepherding them through to their “completions” (even in death, donors aren’t granted full humanity). It’s a difficult responsibility, but Kathy believes she’s doing a service, bringing comfort to her fellow donors, including Tommy and Ruth. Trouble is, every donor’s got to reach completion sooner or later.

Late in the film, the characters hear a rumor that donors can be granted a few extra years if they are found to be in love. For Kathy and Tommy, who have harbored feelings for each other since their Hailsham years, this presents a new kind of hope. However, the movie never makes this possibility seem any more real than the rumors of Hailsham escapees turning up dead and mutilated. But while we don’t believe the rumor to be true- and it’s possible that Kathy doesn’t believe it very deeply either- Tommy is excited about the possibility of a delayed completion. It’s in these scenes where Garfield’s performance, the best in the film, gets especially fascinating. While Kathy and Ruth have grown up to be fairly normal (considering the circumstances), Tommy has remained more or less childlike, and so his efforts to prove he deserves to be granted an extension find him reverting to the ways he learned at Hailsham, as he draws sketch after sketch to show off his creative mind and soul. When he discovers the truth, it devastates him so much that all he can do is break down screaming as he did when he was a child. It’s a heartbreaking moment, as is his final scene, in which he meets his destiny by turning to Kathy and giving her one final sad smile.

One of the marvels of Never Let Me Go is how precisely Romanek captures the very specific tone of the novel. Ishiguro’s book is fairly light on story, so in order for the movie to work at all Romanek needed to find the right feeling, and he never missteps. Every element of the film- the performances, Rachel Portman’s score, the muted cinematography and art direction- is tightly controlled, all in the service of sustaining the mood of resigned fatalism at the heart of Ishiguro’s vision. Romanek doesn’t reach for his effects because to do so would break the movie’s spell. Like its central character, Never Let Me Go refuses to rage against the dying of the light, and while of the movie’s critics might object to that, I for one found it to be incredibly moving. By refusing to pander to the audience’s need to catharsis, Romanek has done justice to a great book.
Rating: 8 out of 10.

1 comment:

Mr. K said...

I'm so happy to read a review that's similar to my thoughts after I've seen the movie. I'm from an Asian culture and the social divisions are more rigid than the western counterpart. To me that's where the tragedy lies and that's what breaks my heart about this movie.