|Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) know their destiny in Never Let Me Go.|
By John Esther
“All moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday till the fear of the Law” – James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
Woefully, erroneously set in England during the years 1967-1994, director Mark Romanek’s and writer Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go explores universal themes and notions of creation, duplication, destiny and purpose in ways reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant novel, Blade Runner, by way of a storyline resembling Michael Bay’s maniacal blockbuster, The Island, where clones are created in order to supply vital body parts for their wealthy "original" patrons.
Secluded in a boarding school called Hailsham (located in East Sussex) cloned children live and die with one purpose: to supply their organs for strangers. The word “children” rings hollow, as the organ-grinding, mass-produced majority of them will not see beyond the age of 40 yet their series of subsequent seclusions – from birth to death -- stunts rather than accelerates their growth. Before they go under on the table multiple times – the third time is usually “ the completion” charm – they will remain behind the times and socially underdeveloped. This is not a cushy government job.
It is 1967, and far from the Summer of Love, as the world splinters from its modernist to postmodernist era/error, Young Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Young Ruth (Ella Purnell) and Young Tommy (Charlie Rowe) live under the school’s headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling at her best). They have no idea what is in store-age for them until Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) lays down the law of the land in no uncertain terms. Before the kids can love the teacher who cared and dared to defy the disciplinarian -- a la Madchen in Uniform (recently released on Home Digital for the first time) -- the agitator is given the axe. It will be the first of many times the kids are stunned again and again before they become remains of the days in the futures of others.
Jump to 1985, in the heart-less-for-the-poor center of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s dismal England, the kids have learned to accept their fate. For the first time outside of Hailsham, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (an impressive Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley giving the best performance of her career) learn to adapt to such simple tasks as laughing at moronic television, ordering breakfast at a restaurant and sex. (I suppose they are medically prevented from reproducing, but what about STDs?)
As their lives are arranged there is little for them to do but bide their limited time. Ruth and Tommy start a romance while Kathy, who is narrating the film, looks and listens on in confusion. Each un-ideal copy seeks her or his “original,” but none are to be found for these characters “copied from trash,” as Ruth puts it. A bittersweet time that was probably never in their control, once they part, the three will rarely ever be together again.
In a medical-scape scarier and drearier than ever (did the overcast ever go away during the movie?), 1994 sees Kathy as a caregiver while Ruth and Tommy have already undergone two completions. Ruth’s dying wish is Tommy and Kathy get a reprieve by convincing others they are in love. But society and fate never spares the dead men and women walking and talking for the sake of love. When the times come, the doctors who have taken their Hippocra(i)tic-al Oath have their ‘fresh name donor game fair meat all the same’ to remove.
To live and lose rather than to never have lived at all, Never Let Me Go is dead set against cloning humans for the purpose of harvesting the organs of individuals whose destinies are too tangible, to stark for any other place in society. If the cloned possess the qualities of human beings, then how can we allow them to be body fodder for the origin-al of species?
Of course, there are parables here with regard to much larger political issues (war, GLBT rights, medical ethics) that Never Let Me Go eschews for emotional impact. And that is something of a shame.
Even worse than this, the film’s unfortunate use of music or lack thereof some apropos tunes, and the nonsensical art gallery for soul’s sake issue, the film’s primary problem is setting up the film in the past. There was no such “national donor program” during the 20th Century. People could not be cloned in 1952 and in 1967 most people did not live 100 years. Historical dystopian narratives rarely work to great affect -- such as in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. More commonly, however, is that rather than create a haunting nightmarish history from which we may be unable to awake from today, the use of this anachronistic trope in Never Let Me Go only de-empathizes the audience from the film’s bigger and brighter ideas.
Superior to The Island, on the upside of this depressing film with tears aplenty, the aforementioned acting is admirable, director of photographer Adam Kimmel (Capote) artistically captures the film’s mood without breaking for relief and Never Let Me Go does have a few ethical topics to discuss over a few drinks with your fellow humans.