What is the purpose of our lives? What for are we on the surface of this planet? Do we know it? Have not we been grappling with it from the beginning of the human race?
Yet, they knew it...
Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, is both a love story and dystopia, a reflection on mortality and memory, and a comment on how our society works by setting up an extreme scenario. These notes are both about the film and the book.
There are two interlinked narratives running through it, a love story, and the fate of Hailsham’s students. Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) narrates her story, which is also that of his fellow students Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). The beginning and the end of the film blend together, providing a neat enclosure to the whole of the narrative. In this sense, the structure of the film follows that of the book. However, there are several divergences between the two as the story progresses, which mostly work, with a couple of exceptions here and there.
We are thrown from the very first scene of Never Let Me Go into a typical scene of a boarding educational establishment anywhere in England, a school assembly. Little children are spoken to by the head mistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), about the special perils of smoking for them, as they are “special”. The children respond in unison. The camera focuses on young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), then moves to a child Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Ella Purnell). The protagonists and the school, Hailsham, have been effectively introduced to us.
From there we follow them onto the play ground and other typical boarding school activities. Yet we soon see that they are treated as “special” children. There seem to be a rather intrusive medical presence within the school, a normal bruise on Kathy’s face, which anywhere else would have been dismissed as children play, is looked suspiciously by the nurse, who feels compelled to have the doctor to examine it. Romanek introduces us much earlier than it was in the book to the core of Never Let Me Go: these children are “indeed” special, they have been raised as part of a human cloning programme with the only purpose to provide (“donate” is the euphemism used) their vital organs for the rest of society to be cured of all major illnesses – no more deaths produced by cancer or heart strokes, people mostly live well past a hundred year old. To be fair to Romanek, he had to introduce us to the purpose of the school in the opening credits to give a clear structure to the film. Literature and cinema are different art forms, what works in one does not necessarily work on the other.
As they are told by one of the teachers, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), normal people can dream, perhaps to go to America, or to be actors, or just simply work in a supermarket, or having children, raising a family. These options are not open to Hailsham students. They will become adults, just briefly, before they start to donate their organs so that the rest of society can go on living for longer, free of diseases. They can have sex, but are not able to have children. America, actors, supermarkets, office? All out of bonds for them.
If we produce battery raised chicken, or semi-industrial production of animals for us to consume their meat, is much different to raise humans for us to consume their organs? If that were to be the case, would those humans, those children, be considered equal to us? This is what lies behind that scene where Madame is ganged upon by the children. On that initial scene, Richard failed to project that sense of revulsion, not fear, as if the children were not human, as if the children were spiders, as Ishiguro wrote on the novel. However, on that final encounter between Madame and the grown up Kathy and Tommy, that feeling was strongly conveyed, particularly when Madame says to Kathy “You, poor creatures”. The mythical “Madame’s Gallery” is also finally elucidated here. Tommy is utterly distraught when he finds out, while Kathy takes it all in with calm resignation, as if she always knew somewhere in the back of her mind.
What is incidental for many of us, memories, becomes vital for Kathy. When the future has been set out for you in minute detail, when all your movements are being monitored from birth to death – we see them having to check in with their bracelets when they get back to the Cottages after an excursion, then their memories is the only thing that can be owned.
I also felt that, because of the need by Alex Garland to compress the book in a format which could be cinematically doable, some of the early scenes seem somewhat forced, as if Romanek had to go through the paces. I am particularly thinking of the scene where Kathy’s group of children gangs on Madame (Natalie Richard) when she was doing of her regular visits to the school to collect their artwork for “The Gallery”, as they suspected that she was afraid of the them. What they found was much worse than that, a reaction that told them what they were much clearer than any word could be. Ishiguro built a crescendo to reach to that particular moment in the novel, while Romanek just threw it, therefore loosing the potency and the meaning of it, a key moment which defines much of the rest of the story. However, on the second encounter between a grown up Kathy and Tommy, the meaning of Madame’s attitude becomes clear, and the reason for Hailsham to exist becomes is also explained to them. It is interesting to note here that the creation of this school created a sense of class within these children, these people, as most of them were raised in establishments akin to battery farms.
No explanation is given either in the film or the book of how this cloning programme came into existence, apart from a mention of a medical breakthrough in 1952. Presumably, what started as an experimental programme became so ingrained into social expectations that no other consideration would be look at. We all want to live free of disease until a ripe old age. We do not want to know how we do it, what is the prize to be paid by others. However, Never Let Me Go, as in much of the best of works with a science fiction theme, is not about science, but about us, humans. The scientific dimension is used as an artistic device to set up a situation which would be not credible otherwise.
Both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield were excellent as Ruth and Tommy, while Charlotte Rampling delivered a very professional Miss Emily. I Have never been too convinced about Keira Knightley, and nothing in this film dispels that notion. The cinematography was excellent, particularly on those intimate shots in the Cottages, with beautiful tangential lighting.
Some commentators have described Never Let Me Go as depressing. However, I did not find that this was the case, mostly because of the intense and deep pleasure I had on watching the waves of humanity rippling through Carey Mulligan’s face. If I had a celebrity crush, I think it would be on Carey. That deep voice coming out of what is still a child like face...
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling
Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Music: Rachel Portman