Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), with a script by Alex Garland, is a physically drab-colored but emotionally colorful take on a science fiction future we have, in reality, avoided (in some ways, so far). The performances by all the lead cast, as children and as adults, are complicated, restrained and ultimately unforgettable. It is no doubt one of the best films of 2010.
The film takes place from 1978 to 1994, but not our version of those years. In this film, some time after World War II, medical science advanced to the point that the creation of human beings solely to be used as organ farms for the rich became commonplace, and this development rapidly worked its way into ethics, practice, economy and politics.
Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan [An Education, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps]/Isobel Meikle-Small) narrates the tale of her life as one of these parentless children, and also follows the story of her two best friends, Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield [The Social Network]/Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Keira Knightley [The Duchess]/Ella Purnell). They are raised and educated at Hailsham, an orphanage or boarding school which forms their entire childhood world.
Kathy is moonily but still seriously in love with Tommy, who, as a child, is bullied, has wild bursts of anger and quickly pairs off with Ruth, Kathy's best friend, when the pairing off begins with their adolescence. A scene in which Kathy listens to a song on a cassette tape bought for her as a gift by Tommy at one of the school's bittersweet broken-toy school bazaars--"Songs After Dark" by Judy Bridgewater, a fictional Petula Clark-esque torch singer/rocker--really tells a lot of the story all on its own. And what a great song, by legendary singer/songwriter Luther Dixon ("Sixteen Candles," "Baby It's You" and more), and performed here in character by jazz singer Jane Monheit.
At Hailsham, the children are pretty well taken care of by the staff, though the adults all know the secret the children only grasp partially for a long while. Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) tries to spill the beans, but finds she's mostly speaking above the heads of her charges. Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling, strident), the school's headmistress, quickly has Lucy removed from her teaching position at Hailsham, and reassures the children that they are above-average and have a special destiny. She encourages the children to make art for the school's "gallery" (curated by Madame Marie-Claude [Nathalie Richard]), which is a glamorous name for a failed experiment, which yet lends credence to rumors.
The film raises questions of fascism, vampirism, caste, love, endurance and the human soul. Instead of working them out on a political or top-story level, it explores them through the individual stories of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. In doing so, it raises some more questions, and provides human answers, not simple plot resolutions. The telling of the story itself is a protest against the given fascism of the characters' circumstances. In many ways the message of the film is that people's real stories and struggles are anti-fascist in and of themselves. There can be no triumphant Axis story of World War II which can coexist with The Diary of Anne Frank or Schindler's List, etc. That is, unless the Axis wins, and burns the books, and marches forward, as is implied with this story, bulldozing individual rights, freedoms and stories like this one.
But in creating this crushing, theoretical fascist society, the story of witness to horror is muted by the quotidian acceptance of the horrific circumstances by all the characters of the story. No one can see any way out. It's simply impossible, unthinkable, which tweaks our own view of life in our own societies, which we hope is more just. But what are we missing? Whose stories? Whose points of view?
Rachel Portman's simple, subdued themes fit perfectly and speak in the same dramatic language as the rest of the film. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel's washed-out, patinated colors bring a familiar cinematic Britain--drab, staid, rainy--together with a (conquered?) fascist Britain, as a polite-but-firm, structured killer of youth. Images of bleak, whimsical absurdity and inescapable imprisonment linger after the film is over--an oddly featureless bust in an alcove in Hailsham's walls--a bird indoors, perched on a teapot--a beached boat--Tommy's jangling, desperate artwork, which echoes Picasso, Henri Rousseau and Sendak--Kathy's small, spare, utilitarian apartment during her time as a "carer," or "donation" facilitator--tattered white cloth banners flapping on barbed wire. The juxtaposition of the boat on the beach with Kathy's reading of "The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor" from The Thousand and One Nights in the hospital perfectly captures the themes of stark desperation versus the lightness of freedom, flight, adventure, futurity which our heroes get to glimpse. Scheherazade staved off execution by telling these stories which last into this imagined alternate history to warm and salute these similarly trapped characters. Kathy is a Scheherazade, too. As Kathy, Tommy and Ruth's hopes flare, then flag, the audience is right there with them, through displacement, scars, reaching out, collaboration with attacks and indignities and labored breathing.
I really thought Never Let Me Go might be campy or, honestly, a failure, before I had seen it. The trailer made it seem kind of hokey, and I am not a fan of Romanek's previous feature, One Hour Photo, which, frankly, could give no one great hopes for a film with such grace and heart as Never Let Me Go. Nonetheless he made this one, too, and it's outstanding, just right. It's beautiful, nuanced, delicate and truly affecting, in a way that the similarly plotted Repo Men, also of 2010, was not. It has an apocalyptic wartime savoir faire like Children of Men, the great Alfonso Cuarón film and its basis, the stunning P.D. James novel, The Children of Men, or The Third Man. Seek it out and meet these characters in their predicament, which truly tells us some secret things about our own.
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