[7 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The beauty of life, no matter the level or quality, is the knowledge of purpose. It’s the sense of a greater calling, perhaps restructured by faith, talent, awareness, or a whole and fulfilling love. Without such a belief, without an internal guide that gives us a specific cosmic calling, we feel unsettled and unsure, alien in a world where we are just like everyone else. It’s the basic struggle of the human condition. So what would happen if you knew your purpose right off the bat - that is, from an early age, you knew exactly what your life was made up to be and when and how it will end. That should be the greatest of all insights, the answer to a million prayers piled on top of a prescience that few if any will ever have, right?
In his masterful new film, Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek turns Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel (with the help of Alex Garland’s poetic script) into a search for the soul - the soul of man, the soul of the individual, and the soul of the system. The subtle sci-fi fable centers on clones - individuals raised in a dystopian UK - that are used to help prolong the lives of others. While the scientific breakthroughs and technical aspects are left to allusion and inference, we are still dealing with a brave new world where medicine has mandated the creation of duplicate bodies for maturation and harvesting. Thus we have the upper crust boarding school known as Hailsham, a trio of students slowly coming to terms with their existence, and the evolving truth about a world where value is all function and no fulfillment.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is out empathetic guide, a dreamer who sees something beyond her life as a supplier of spare parts. She is best friends with Ruth (Keira Knightley), a firebrand who’s fragile and yet fiercely competitive. Both of their attentions turn to bullied boy Tommy (Andrew Garfield), lost, lonely, and looking for answers. As they grow, they learn the truth of their situation, fall in and out of love, become members of a disaffected youth desperate for a way of prolonging the inevitable, and struggle to understand the meaning of their time at Hailsham. Kathy eventually becomes a ‘carer’, working to help clones cope with the donations they make on their way to “completion.” In doing so, she begins to see the hopelessness of an existence spent within a pre-assigned, predestined purpose.
Like stanzas in a gorgeous ballad, each lyrical line bringing the sentimental core of the musical theme into focus, Never Let Me Go is memorable and mesmerizing. Romanek deserves more than praise for purposefully avoiding the splashy sturm and drang of the genre, never once taking the material into Island/Children of Men territory. Instead, everything outside of Hailsham (and later, the “Cottages” where the graduates await their eventual assignments) is treated as a mystery, a gigantic machine that manufactures the same wholesome product for an ethnically questionable purpose. Never Let Me Go never addresses the “right or wrong” of cloning, of creating people only to harvest them like crops when the time comes. Instead, Romanek and Garland go for a much more complicated apprehension - what makes us human - inside the ever-present ‘playing God’ concerns.
The movie is a puzzle, an ingenious linking of ideas and sequences, each one opening our understanding of what is actually happening. We are instantly taken in by Kathy’s romanticized view of things - her passionate puppy love for Tommy, the predictable hurt when he takes with Ruth instead, the title torch song which fosters feelings both passionate and maternal within her, the open hearted appreciation of her short time status - and it is through her that Never Let Me Go does most of its most devastating work. Mulligan may seem slight and shallow, but within her veal like experiences, such a facade makes sense. Later, when the possibility of a “couples reprieve” is put out there, her true persona is revealed. She ends up being nothing more than a young woman wanting more out of her meaning than as mere supply.
By contrast, Ruth is everything we expect from a spoiled school girl -beauty, bratty, given over to fits of self image and sexual doubts, and vindictive without really meaning such spite - and Knightley inhabits the role flawlessly. She’s the perfect complement to Garfield’s Tommy, someone who needs to be guided and groomed. Without any parental input, with limited interaction with the “real” world (a sequence involving the ‘sale’ of broken toys and various damaged knickknacks is extremely telling) and each other, Never Let Me Go suggests that these ‘things’ aren’t less human, just less identifiably so. Intriguingly, these clones aren’t cloistered off in some massive factory, hooked up to medical apparatus and awaiting the inevitable. They are allowed to sample the potential pleasures of life while knowing it will end much sooner than expected.
Romanek uses his enigmatic approach to raise questions of devastating curiosity - none more important than the purpose of “the Gallery”. While it sounds like a future shock gimmick out of Logan’s Run or Soylent Green, it’s actually a simple art symposium run by the mysterious Madame (Nathalie Richard). But the reason for its existence, and the import it holds for the Hailsham students - especially Tommy - is one of the film’s most significant reveals. Again, it’s not a moment of major upheaval, just part of the purely bureaucratic procedure. Through it all, Romanek’s choices remain clear and concise. Nothing is out of place, no shot is wasted. Everything has a meaning and makes symbolic sense, the contrast between the lush landscapes of the British countryside and the harsh truths of being ‘disposable’ upfront and palpable.
As a genius work of art, as an experience that will leave some cold and others clamoring for the right level of praise, Never Let Me Go surpasses expectation. It derives such joy out of casting a sunny glow over decidedly dark material and yet we never feel we are watching a depressing deconstruction on the purpose of life. Instead, Romanek allows his cast room to breathe, to inhabit these spoken for souls and argue for both sides of their individual/inventory status. You may not see it at first and may find such a statement specious, but no recent film has found a more striking balance between the fullness and futility of existence than this one. Part of the allure in purpose is knowing that, oddly enough, it may never be clearly defined. Never Let Me Go suggests that might be something worth savoring. Unwavering predetermination clearly has its deadening drawbacks.