Monday, 7 February 2011

Review: Never Let Me Go

Mark Romanek is a great music video director who directs feature films quite rarely. He was supposed to direct last year's The Wolfman, but left mid-production due to creative differences (i.e. he wanted to make something creative, the studio didn't). Now his latest film arrives with a lot of talk of how the Oscars ignored it completely included. It seems that this smaller-scale film didn't have enough money to campaign for nominations. Well, seeing as I think this year's nominations are already pretty high-quality, I don't really think any major crimes were commited by leaving this out. But the film still would deserve the attention it would've gotten from its status as a Nominated film.

Never Let Me Go is a good old-fashioned Melodramatic Romance. It has some flavours of sci-fi and social commentary, but wisely it doesn't play its whole hand right in the beginning. It is very hard to talk about the film without spoiling some surprises the film has in store. If you're easily spoiled by reviews, I'd advice to see the film first and return to the review later. There's no major Shyamalan-size twists in store, but in order to analyze a film one must consider its whole world-view.

Still here? Good. The film follows three people: Kathy, Tommie and Ruth. They grow up and develop relationships together during the years. Charlie Brown Tommie has an inferiority complex for being bad at sports and art, and is prone to have hissy fits. Lucy Ruth is bossy, crabby and secretly insecure. She also bullies Tommie and generally demands that things are done as she wishes. And our protagonist Kathy is... well, she's in love with Tommie, which I suppose is a characteristic.  First they are met as children attending an English boarding school. The opening scenes resemble an English period drama, with something just a little amiss and ominous. Eventually the truth is revealed by a teacher: all the children in the school are clones, grown specifically to be harvested for organs. The children aren't that worried: after all their organs will only be taken in their late twenties', which is lightyears away.

Unfortunately, after the children grow up and move to live in the same cottage, Romanek seems to be more interested in the story going forward than the characters and their inner turmoil. The main characters start to be played by stiff actors Carey Mulligan (Kathy), and the much-better-in-Social-Network future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield (Tommie). Keira Knightley is the only one of the lead trio that lets loose a little as she's playing a total bitch for a change. Nevertheless, all the youngsters are tragically one-dimensional, only characterized by the one thing that they want or aim for. In the case of Kathy the protagonist, she is the one that most keeps her feelings inside. Later she is explained to have huge passions flowing below the surface, but without any proof of such occurences actually happening. The only feelings she shows at this point are pining and annoyance when Ruth and Tommie start having a relationship that includes both loud fighting and love-making.

As the years pass and the eventually fatal organ harvesting draws closer, rumours of a change for survival draw the characters together again. Kathy and Tommie still have the total hots for each other, 16 years after their first kiss. Romanek seems to want to make something akin to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where a great love is headed into imminent destruction by outside forces.  But the switch between childhood and adulthood waters this down seriously. While the viewer easily accepts that the pre-teen Kathy and Tommie should be together, this feeling doesn't transfer that easily to the adult versions. We're supposed to accept that neither of them ever move on with their lives and secretly pine for each other without seeing once in 10 years in different cities. Call me a cynic if you will, but I find it hard to adapt to someone being THAT into their first crush.

But luckily the film deals also with other subjects. The fragility of the human body is emphasized on young people, that will not live to grow old. The ethics of medical sciences are also called into question: If we allow feeling animals to suffer to lengthen our lives, what stops us to harvest second-class citizens the same way? Romanek doesn't give us any the oppressing government- and scientist-types. The unfairness isn't attributed to any single villain but to a whole system that very rarely thinks about the ethical questions concerning their will to live long and prosper.

Screenwriter Alex Garland gives the film a very British view of public school humiliations and keeping a stiff upper lip toward any hardships. He also ends the film with a real blow. While love may be Everlasting in life, it can not transcend death or the unquestioned oppression. There's also something very human about how easy it is to cling onto convinient rumours. We lie to ourselves about an easy rescue to avoid thinking about unpleasant thoughts that could save our lives. So while the characterization and especially the middle part drags, the film at least has plenty of interesting ideas to ponder. That is not bad at all.


USA/UK, 2010
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on the Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

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