Friday, March 11, 2011

The Existential Melancholy of "Never Let Me Go"

Viewers are better off not knowing many of the particulars of the the story in "Never Let Me Go," based on a much-lauded 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, but it is difficult to discuss the film without reference to some spoilers. I'll try to be as vague as I can, but for those of you seeking to avoid knowing too much, I'll give you the short version up front. "Never Let Me Go" is a heartbreaker, a slow, subtle, difficult parable about love and mortality in an unkind world. It will no doubt frustrate and bore some viewers as much as it will move others, but there's no question that it is a very good film and one that I've found hard to stop thinking about.

Still reading? Full speed and spoilers ahead.

"Never Let Me Go" begins at an English boarding school in the 70s called Hailsham, where we meet our three main characters, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, as children. The headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), tells her pupils very seriously that Hailsham students are special, and there are many sinister clues throughout the first segment of the film hinting at why. The children wear electronic monitoring wristbands, and their health is checked constantly. Outsiders keep their distance from the children, and a newly arrived young teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), seems disturbed by the gruesome stories and rumors that circulate around the school. Kathy, however, is occupied with a developing affection for Tommy, who is a little slower than many in their class, and has a tendency to get frustrated because he's not good at things like art and sports. At first Kathy's affections seem to be reciprocated, but then her best friend Ruth, more aggressive and assertive, decides she likes Tommy and the two pair off.

And this is the main concern of "Never Let Me Go," the relationships among these three characters. The revelation of why the children are special, and why they are treated differently is the stuff of a thousand trashy science-fiction novels. In a different film, and there have been several dealing with a similar premise, the plot would be all about the three characters trying to run away from their fates, trying to subvert a terrible and unfair society that has subjugated them. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and all the others like them, are constantly trying to find a way to delay the inevitable, but there's the sense that there is nowhere left for them to escape to, that the mechanism of their doom is simply too deeply entrenched and all-encompassing in their world to be defied. So the story is about trying to live and love in the bounds of severe restrictions and limitations. More than that, it's about the emotional reality of accepting a life where misery and loss are meted out too quickly, too often.

We follow the three children into young adulthood, when they leave Hailsham, and then to hospitals and "Care Centers" where they unexpectedly reunite about ten years later. In these latter segments Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) clash and reconcile and learn more hard truths about their world and their circumstances. The performances are excellent, especially Mulligan's as the grown-up Kathy. The trio seem to age decades in the blink of an eye, beyond even the ages that they're supposed to be portraying as they inch closer and closer to desperation. The adult actors are also much better than the child performers at conveying that there's something slightly off and unnatural about the characters, that perhaps their extreme naivete and difficulty with social interactions aren't simply products of their isolated upbringing. This is wisely left for viewers to ponder over on their own, along with many other subtle details that point to certain truths that are never directly acknowledged.

And so the film is moody, serious, and slow, evoking a plethora of deep, uncomfortable emotions. It requires no small amount of patience to fully examine and understand. No wonder, then, that "Never Let Me Go" ends up resembling another famous adaptation of an Ishiguro novel, "The Remains of the Day," more than any science-fiction antecedents. Genre fans hoping for a typical action picture here are sure to be disappointed, if not utterly depressed after a viewing. And yet, though "Never Let Me Go" is a sad story, the film isn't gloomy or especially dark. It occupies an alternate reality in more than one sense. Not only does it take place in a Britain that is the product of an alternate timeline, but the children are often seen inhabiting the places that the rest of society has left behind or discarded. Mark Romanek's visuals are delicate and carefully constructed, full of old and fading objects, buildings that have seen better days, and the constant presence of the natural world. There's a sense of nostalgia for another time, a gentler, kinder time that is slowly being eaten away by the ruthless future.

Some quick kudos to Alex Garland's screenplay, Rachel Portman's score, and Adam Kimmel's cinematography, especially for that last scene of Kathy at the field. Those last images that are going to stay with me for a very, very long time.

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