Never Let Me Go (2010)

28 February 2011

Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is a wonderfully controlled film that, in telling an otherwise emotionally plausible story against real locations utilised as a period setting and/or alternate reality, follows similarly genre-twisting films such as 28 Days Later... (also scripted by Garland in 2002), Children of Men (2006) and last year's Monsters.

In this instance, the film is set in both an alternate past and therefore an alternate present, disclosing in its opening titles enough information so that its 'revelation' - which happens to my knowledge less subtly and much earlier than in the novel - seems natural enough from the other details and clues we are given in its expository opening third. Indeed, while careful reviewers have warned of 'spoilers ahead', even those unfamiliar with this film's storyline going in are unlikely to drop their jaws when Sally Hawkins's Miss Lucy reveals to the children of Hailsham boarding school that they are clones, and that their sole purpose on this earth is to donate their healthy organs before they have fully reached adulthood.

Whatever of the novel, the twist doesn't seem the point of Romanek's film, but only the starting point. Its main focus instead is the love triangle that drives the film, from its early passages, in which the young version of our narrator Kathy befriends and falls for Tommy only to watch him seemingly fall for Kathy's friend Ruth, to her unexpected reunion with the pair years later, when Kathy is a 'carer' and both Ruth and Tommy have begun their donation process.

In beginning in the 1970s as opposed to some distant future, the film carries an inherent nostalgia for the past, however alternate its history may be. It also assures us that even if this is for the viewer an as-yet-inconceivable setting, for its characters, there will be no fantastical, final-reel escape from the state. Kathy herself is a 'carer' - for her fellow donors - only in a volunteer capacity, one that only defers her eventual 'completion' (death via donation). Similarly, when two supporting characters reveal the possibility of a deferral process based on two people being in (verifiable) love, not only does it remain a remote possibility in itself, even if it turns out to be true, the deferral is just that: a postponement, not a cancellation. This is the horror of their situation.

Once the purpose of their existence is made clear to the characters and us, the film's opening voice-over, in which Kathy tells us she is 24-years-old, becomes a haunting reminder of the story's hopelessness. In the meantime, we have a mournful yet somehow absorbing and reflective film on not just loss but mortality itself. It unfolds like a heightened version of Alain-Fournier's short novel Le Grand Meaulnes, with the added twist that youth is not just unattainable once gone, but under certain state practices, it might not be attainable at all.

Given the themes of loss and love, it seems surprising that Garland's script matches Kathy's nostalgic narration by having much of its dramatic material happen offscreen. Tommy's reasons for choosing Ruth in the first place, for instance, are never questioned or given, and even Kathy's immediate response to it is kept to a minimum of reaction shots, with her unaffected voice-over only bridging lapses in time and not providing emotional padding. The jump between the Hailsham scenes and The Cottages, marked by the change of performers (Carey Mulligan replaces Isobel Meikle-Small as Kathy, Andrew Garfield replaces Charlie Rowe as Tommy and Keira Knightley replaces Ella Purnell as Ruth), offers a kind of vague comparison to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), something recalled again later in the film when we jump to 1994 and a more urban setting. In that film, Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman drilled his troops into allegorical clones for the purposes of an imperialist war; here, they are the literal clones for the purposes of extending life for the rest of us.

As a result of these ellipses, the film at first impression moves swiftly to the point where its characterisation appears slight and its story perhaps even inconsequential. There's something inherently devastating at work in emotional terms, though, and heightened by Rachel Portman's beautiful score and Adam Kimmel's fine photography, Romanek's subdued direction aids any would-be hysteria into quiet contemplation. The one time, late in the film, in which Andrew Garfield's Tommy is allowed the same kind of emotional outpour for which his character is first noted as a young boy who knows no better, the film itself accomodates a similar if more internal cry of futility on the viewer's part.