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Non-Review Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a mess of a film. Adapted from the highly-praised novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also wrote the novel that inspired The Remains of the Day), the movie is never really sure what it is talking about, or how it’s talking about it, or even what the point of it all is. There are two superb performances at the middle of the movie, but there’s not nearly enough constructed around them to really make it interesting. Director Mark Romanek cannot decide whether he’s telling a conventional love story in an unconventional setting (with the clear moral that “there’s never enough time”) or if he’s exploring the issue of bio-ethics through the prism of human nature. Ultimately, the film tries to both at the same time, which becomes impossible with Romanek’s cold and efficient direction, which left me feeling quite unsatisfied.

Stumbling out of the gate...

In fairness, Never Let Me Go has an interesting premise, and an interesting way approach to it. Basically exploring the issue of “organ harvesting”, the movie takes place in a sheltered community of children being raised for a nefarious purpose. In the past few years, we’ve seen movies tackle these sorts of themes, and even building huge twists out of the revelation that the main characters are not living in the world that they think they are. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the film’s central premise in the hands of M. Night Shyamalan (by way of The Village) or Michael Bay (by way of The Island, perhaps the only time I will ever use “underrated” and “Michael Bay” in the same review).

It would be easy to turn the plot of Never Let Me Go into a suspenseful mystery, and have the lead characters peel away the lies and half-truths about their existence. “You’ve been told and not told,” one carer, the sympathetic Miss Lucy, remarks. “You’ve been told, but you don’t understand.” Instead, I give Romanek credit for avoiding the cliché. His opening scene makes it pretty clear what awaits the students of Hailsham, couched as it is in Orwellian double-speak like “carers” and “donors” and “caretakers” and “patients” and “guardians” and “completions.” I admire Romanek’s approach, if only because it offers a wealth of narrative opportunity – rather than relying on a last-minute twist, the director and his movie can tackle the complicated issues raised by the subject-matter head-on.

Life's a beach sometimes...

Indeed, we’re well past due for a great “bio-ethics” movie. After all, the issues of stem cell research and donor siblings and organ farming are hot-button topics, the kind that generate books and documentaries and empassioned political discourse. It is, quite frankly, horrifying that the truly soul-destroyingly dire My Sister’s Keeper represents the most high-profile exploration of the subject matter. There has to be something out there that will explore this whole area nearly as shrewdly and cleverly as Gattaca explored the idea of genetic profiling and “designer babies” during the nineties. Unfortunately, despite a strong start, Never Let Me Go is not that film.

Its setting and its fictional world never seem like more than window-dressing. We’re introduced to the school of Hailsham, and then follow our three lead characters outside it, but there’s never a sense of a world beyond our three leads. Any other characters are just plot points, and the furthest outside their world we get is the window of the local travel agent’s. In this way, it feels almost like the organ harvesting aspect of the film is set-up only to introduce more angst into the inevitable “romantic triangle” subplot, but the problem is that the movie teases its audience relentlessly with interesting questions and ideas, but never addresses them.

Through the looking glass...

The movie never explains or explores how or why this relates to the outside world. We don’t know if everybody they encounter in the outside world knows the lead characters are from an organ farm. We’re told that “Helsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation”, which suggests that there is a general social acceptance of the practice of organ-farming – but it seems incredibly unbelievable that the kids would be allowed to roam “free range” like that. In school, we’re told that the kids are controlled by rumours and fears – don’t leave the grounds or you’ll be killed! – but what keeps them from running away when they’re older?

It appears that the subjects are granted limited human rights, clearly given an allowance to live on, taught to “role play” so that they can integrate with the outside world, but it doesn’t really feel very consistent. Quite frankly, despite being told that other schools are “battery farms”, the system seems remarkably civil and the world surreally close to our own. Donors are even allowed to extend their lives by becoming carers and are shown to live in apartments by themselves. It seems surreal that anybody in a system like that would be afforded so much freedom, and that treating them like meat would logically involve considerably more dehumanisation and isolation. Very simply, the world presented here never feels quite “real”, and instead feels shallow and hollow and empty and pointless.

The grass is always greener...

It doesn’t help that Romanek moves the movie along so briskly that there’s no real opportunity to explore any of these. From the moment the movie starts, it feels like he’s racing towards the finish line. I’m reluctant to suggest the movie might have been better if afforded more room, but I do think that it is too compressed for its own good. While adding an extra half-hour to the runtime might have made the movie unbearably self-indulgent, it might also have allowed Romanek to develop both his cast of characters and the world they inhabit, rather than simply offering sketch versions of both.

Perhaps due to the movie’s tight pace, the social commentary feels more than a bit laboured. The implication is that our real-world education system isn’t too far removed from those battery farms presented here, churning out children as meat to be fed to the daily grinder, but it’s all just a little bit too straightforward. Indeed, an awkward closing monologue explicitly states the parallels in case the audience wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the film, wondering if life is any different for “real” people. The problem is that all these little observations feel forced and more than a little pointed. We’re shown children earning buttons they use to pay for materialist possessions, and a young boy being told “if it happens that he’s not very good at sports or art, it doesn’t matter”, as the school kids contemplate how art fits into their existence. (“She can’t really mean that. If being creative isn’t important, then why have a gallery?”)

Eating it up...

We’re treated to the unsubtle sight of the school children mindlessly clapping at empty rhetoric offered by the powers that be. (“The tide is against us” and “I will not be coerced” are just two of the clichés crammed into the speech.) We watch the kids growing into adults, and are subjected to the same awkward morals – a rather simplistic condemnation of pop culture where being “worldly” means pretending to laugh along to a lame Sex & The City knock-off. “It’s copied from that television show,” Kathy remarks of the way Ruth “touches Tommy” and vacuous use of the word “so.” It feels so trite and so cliché, as if this copy-and-paste method understanding of the world somehow be more impressive if Ruth had picked it up from poetry rhymed off at school or the affirmed “classics” of literature.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to defend Sex & The City as a high cultural watermark, but it feels so pathetically obvious to use it to attack people “copying and pasting”attitudes, mannerisms and verbal tics without learning or understanding the material in question. That sort of blinding copying also happens with more acceptable works, and far more pretentious ones. I know people who adapted those mannerisms from shows like that to appear sophisticated, and it’s no more or less irritating from those who echo popular quotations from Joyce or Yeats or Twain or Milton in an attempt to seem more cultured and worldly. The problem is that the movie just picks it as an easy target. Like Ruth itself, the film seems to covet being seen as mature or sophisticated, with only the most shallow of ideas approached in the most simplistic of manners. Indeed, even having the children move to a literal honest-to-goodness farm after school is the most painfully obvious piece of symbolism I’ve seen in a while. (They’re the ones being farmed, geddit?)

Farmed...

The movie explores this more human angle through a romantic triangle that is quite painful from time-to-time. Like so much else about the film, it’s entirely shallow and predictable, but it is helped along by strong performances from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. You can tell the two are meant for greater things, if only because they can rise above the cliché material and make their scenes together somewhat interesting. Keira Knightley suffers as the third lead. She probably has the weakest character and the worst lines. “I’ve had years to think about what I did, and years to think about how to make it right” and “I’m sorry I kept you and Tommy apart” are amongst the blandest angst-ridden dialogue imaginable. Knightley can’t get past characterisation like that, though I respect her for trying.

Never Let Me Go just feels like a waste, which is a shame given the raw material there. Maybe somebody could harvest the better ideas and put them to good use.

6 Responses

  1. I saw this film last year and kept waiting for it to make sense or even have a point, but after a while I just didn’t care. I didn’t buy the premise for a minute. The idea that British society could adjust to doomed organ donors walking around (or even hidden away), who were born only to prolong the empty lives of old rich people strains credibility way past the breaking point. And in the outside world, there are a lot of decrepit old people, but there seem to be no young people other than the donors. I wondered, what happened, did they all get eaten?
    Not to mention, if they could grow babies, wouldn’t it be a lot easier just to grow organs?

  2. I thought it was wonderful. It shook me to the core. It’s not supposed to be about the doomed sci-fi future at all… that’s why it’s never really explained or gone into depth. That isn’t the story that is being told. It’s part love story, yes, but it’s mostly an adolescent story, a growing up story, a tragedy. It occurs in a very specific microcosm, with the outside world being fuzzy and hazy because that’s how their lives are. If interacting with the outside world and its macrocosm had been a point of the movie, clearly the director would have explored that.

    Have you read Ishiguro’s novels? He approaches stories in the same way. His characters live in small worlds, with blinders on, and a certain doomed naivete. Romanek was clearly exploring the themes of the novel, instead of directly translating the plot. I think you were very short-sighted in your watching of this one. It’s absurd to critique a movie for being about one story when you wanted another.

    • I have not read any of Ishiguro’s work, but that doesn’t invalidate my opinion of Romanek’s adaptation of Never Let Me Go, nor does it undermine my love of the Merchant-Ivory Remains of the Day. Similarly, the fact that a viewer has not read the harry Potter books doesn’t make their opinion on the film invalid, and one doesn’t need to read biographies of J. Edgar to appreciate (or otherwise) Eastwood’s recent biography.

      I do, respectfully, object to the idea that I’m criticising it for effectively “not being something else” – at least any more than any other film criticism ever. Suggesting that the world of the film is poorly formed is as valid an argument as suggesting Michael Mann’s usage of digital film on Public Enemies was misjudged – the suggestion the movie would have been stronger had it tackled some of the issues it raised is no more or less invalid an idea as proposing that Mann would have been better suited using conventional techniques. Being honest, I consider it more worthwhile to look at what the problem was and how to fix it, rather than simply snarkily pointing out that it “doesn’t work”, but each person’s approach to film discussion is different.

      To help outline my point a bit more, and to use another example, and arguably one more similar, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book that uses a distinct conceptual set-up to explore an inherently personal story of identity and love, and the notion of personal autonomy. Orwell’s story isn’t “about the doomed sci-fi future at all”, nor should it be. Though I do have issues about how many readers gerrymander books like this out of the “sci-fi” genre, but that’s a discussion for another day.

      However, and here’s the crux of it – Orwell’s vision makes sense. I don’t mean in technological or geo-political ways, I mean in the simple humanity (or inhumanity) of it all. One feels like his dystopia could exist, or at least exists in the reader’s mind as a conceptual framework. It doesn’t break any laws of human behaviour, and we don’t doubt or wonder how an ordinary soul lives in such conditions – Orwell describes the scenary and we know how people live in the world.

      Here, however, the world in Never Let Me Go does not make sense – there’s no humanity (or inhumanity) behind it. There’s no sense of what this organ-harvesting says about the society conducting it, and – since organ harvesting is a crucial part of the movie’s “we don’t have enough time” love-story metaphor – the whole thing falls a bit flat. It just happens because donor siblings are topical, and it feels like a massive intellectual cop-out. As I said, not a reflection on the book – but on the movie.

      Of course, this is just my opinion, and each is entitled to their own. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Good review indeed. After watching, it took me a while to understand what’s actually wrong with it – it’s well done from the technical point of view and is not completely flawed, but the characters, their motivations (or the lack of) and the plot credibility destroy everything. It’s not really a love story, it’s not a dystopia, it’s not really science fiction. The film seems to care little about the characters, so why should we? I am afraid this one was intended to be as a cold intellectual reflection, in best case.

  4. It was too heartless when the story is meant to do the opposite

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