“Never Let Me Go,” starring Carrie Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield was previewed in Chicago at the AMC-21 Theater on Thursday, September 16th, 2010. It was, as the website AV-Club put it, “a film steeped in misery and despair.” If you can handle that warning that this film is definitely a downer and you’re not likely to leave the theater humming a happy tune, there is much to recommend in this effort from the director of Robin Williams’ “One Hour Photo,” Mark Rumanek.
Rumanek is known mainly for his direction of music videos, but, ironically, he and Ben Affleck are talking about collaborating on a black comedy and it is Affleck’s new film “The Town” that promises to give this Kubrick-inspired director some competition at the Cineplex right now, just a few days shy of the Chicago-born director’s 51st birthday.
The opening scenes are of a British boarding school called Hailsham House in 1978, and we meet two young girls, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carrie Mulligan) who will vie for the affection(s) of Tommy (Andrew Garfield). The young actresses and actor who portray the trio as children are excellent (Izzy Merkle-Small as young Kathy; Ella Purnell as young Ruth; and Charlie Rowe as young Tommy). You can tell that the evil headmistress Miss Emily, played by Charlotte Rampling, is a clone of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She seems to represent evil incarnate.
Clone is exactly the correct term for this film, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The students are told in assembly that “students of Hailsham are special and keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves healthy, inside, is of paramount importance.” That would be because, as in “Coma,” the students’ organs are going to be used to extend the life of their DNA donor(s). The NDP (National Donor Programme) is raising the brood to be organ donors, with a few given a special reprieve of a few years if they volunteer to be “carers,” as Kathy does. Otherwise, the surgery starts after the walking organ donors leave their original boarding homes at 18. After 3 “donations,” they usually “complete,” a euphemism for “die.” Says one attending nurse to Carrie as she functions as a “carer” for one hapless victim, “As you know, when they want to complete, they usually do.”
So, yes, it’s a cheery tale of mortality, life and death and, as you can imagine, in the hands of a skillful director, which Romanek is, there are ruminations on wanting more time (“We never feel we’ve had enough time — “) and the mysteries of life that afflict us all. But for this trio, things are a bit more brutal than for the rest of the country, leading one of their teachers, near the end of the film, to say, “You poor creatures. I wish I could help.”
That, of course, is one of the things that average audiences are going to be wondering about. Why don’t these doomed young adults try to make a run for it, as the Replicants did in “Blade Runner?” Why are they so resigned to their fate? Brainwashing is all well and good as an explanation, but when does the survival instinct kick in? As the film opens, in fact, Carrie Mulligan, who has become a “carer” is heard saying, “I’ve a great sense of pride in what we do. In the end, it wears you down.”
Well, no kidding. Not only does it wear you down, it kills you, and most healthy, red-blooded young men and women would not go so gently into that good night, methinks. (“Logan’s Run,” anyone?)
But nevermind about that for the moment. Let’s just enjoy the love triangle that Director Romanek has set up amongst Ruth, Kathy and Tommy. We all know that Tommy should be with Kathy, but, for some also unexplained reason, he lets himself be led around by the nose by the wraith-like Keira Knightley. That is another unexplained phenomenon.
Beyond that, there are lines like, “It had never occurred to me that our lives, which had been so closely interwoven, could unravel with such speed” and references to the “unseen tides which pull us apart.” Mulligan is shown holding a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” at one point.
Mulligan’s character of Kathy does seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, figuring out that the stories they are told to keep them on the grounds of Hailsham, and the talk of a “deferral” of a few years if you go to the authorities and can prove “true love” are just that: fabrications and fictions. The movie’s title ties in with a tape the young Tommy gives Kathy and, of course, has a deeper meaning as well. The abandoned, wrecked boat on the shore serves as a nice metaphor, and the dangers of science gone mad, of scientific advances devoid of ethical considerations are nicely illustrated. The gallery that Tommy and Kathy discuss (artworks taken from the students), when tracked to its origins by the determined pair of lovebirds, gives us the line, “There are no deferrals and there never have been. We had the gallery to see if you had souls at all.” [Wow. Talk about cold.]
The film is beautifully photographed (cinematography courtesy of Adam Kimmel), has a great script by Alex Garland, and is uniformly excellent in the acting of both the young trio as children and the better-known adult stars of the film. Two things that interested me: while there were numerous on-location sites in the United Kingdom, one such site was Weston-Super-Mare, where I spent time as an exchange student. It also was interesting to me to read that Carrie Mulligan had to learn to drive for her role, but flunked her driver’s exam and was therefore confined to driving on remote rural roads.
That has little to do with the film’s overall essence, which is, indeed, “steeped in misery and despair” but which is so excellent and so touching that you will think about it for quite some time after it’s over.