Thursday, October 21, 2010

Never Let Me Go

OK, I'm putting the brakes on this horror marathon to cycle through my thoughts on the film I saw last night, which judging from the lack of buzz this is creating, could seriously use a cheerleader right now. The film is Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, and currently the most unexpectedly devastating movie of the year. And if I'm going to discuss this at length (and that is the plan), it's going to be impossible to stave off spoilers for too long. You get one more paragraph, which hopefully will be enough to convince you to see this film.

You may have seen the posters - two young friends (lovers, in a way) running down a bleak pier - a pretty if uninspiring sight, and hardly a hint as to what the film is about. Nor should it be. That Never Let Me Go becomes something more than a love story set against the backdrop of dreary British vistas is best discovered when the movie means you too, roughly 1/3 of the way through the storyline. Even before this staggering revelation, a cloud hangs over the film. It never goes away. We follow three main characters, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, from boarding school into adulthood, and by the time the child actors of the first segment of the film have been succeeded by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightly, we both know and feel deeply for them. The performances are exquisite, weathering the unrelenting storm of the film with measured bits of optimism and joy. Mulligan, for the second year running, gives one of the year's best performances, and both Knightly and Garfield would also find their way into the Oscar race if there was any justice (alas, there won't be). But the film is heartbreaking, and I mean that in the deadly serious Dancer in the Dark/Grave of the Fireflies sense of the word, so approach looking to have the sunshine sucked out of your day. If that sits alright with you, then get to the theater and watch one of the best films of the year.

So what's going on? (spoilers, they start now) Well, although slyly masquerading as a story of young, fragile love, Never Let Me Go is actually science fiction, and honestly one of the best forays into the genre that's come out in recent years. The characters are clones, raised in seclusion from the rest of society at a boarding school and groomed into safe, healthy adults who's destiny in life is to act as organ donors for a society flourishing thanks to medical advances. In withholding this back story at first, the film (as well as the source material) gives viewers the chance to see these students as humans first and foremost, a distinction which they find themselves fighting against all their lives. That is, apparently, how the rest of society can sleep at night, convinced that these donors are somehow lesser creatures, and even as they resist such, they're weighed down by the worst inferiority complexes imaginable.

Never Let Me Go then becomes about courage in the face of impending death, which comes after two, three, sometimes four transplants leave you unable to carry on. It's honestly more horrifying than any film I've watched this month, because instead of making light of death, it forces you to contemplate it, and there's not much scarier than that. Presented as an alternate history, it also raises the idea of an alternate humanity. From childhood on, these donors are raised on different ideals, and even as they leave school and mature together, their actions and decisions (and lack thereof) are informed by what they've been taught humanity is. The performances bear testament to this, never more so than when the characters make a foray into the real world, visiting a diner and wandering the streets. If they're vaguely sheeplike, it can be blamed on years of isolation from the rest of society, and left to wander in a world where everyone is supposedly different from them, it's no surprise that they cluster together.

And yet after everything else, it's still about love, an eternal kind that Kathy and Tommy seem to experience, and that underscores more than anything their humanity. There's a chilling moment near the end, where nearly 20 years after their days at school, Kathy and Tommy see their old headmistress again. Although now wheelchair bound, she looks no different from how they knew her long ago, surely to the credit of these medical advances. And yet Tommy is visibly weary from two transplants, and Kathy carries a debilitating cynicism with her. They're closer to the grave than the old headmistress is, and they all know it. It's not about morality. We see too little of the other side of society for any cost/benefits analysis to be made. But we do believe in their humanity, there's little question of that, and the muted yellow screen that closes the film gives us a final time for reflection on our own.

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