Never Let Me Go

Posted by Glennis Byron on February 15, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Review of Never Let Me Go. 2010. Dir. Mark Romanek, screenplay by Alex Garland,with Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley. Adapted from the book by Kazuo Ishiguro

(This is not so much a proper review as a few  comments on the film in the context of the book – or perhaps more accurately a bit of a rant – and I’m therefore assuming the story is known, so, spoiler alert. )

I am the absolute worst person to write about this film, because I so fanatically adore the book, and so, while well aware that an adaptation needs to be judged on its own, and as a different kind of beast, I’m almost doomed to find the film lacking. I suspect that someone who hasn’t read the book will enjoy it much more, because it is in many ways a really beautiful film – fabulous cinematography, heartbreakingly beautiful score by Rachel Portman. But for me, well, like Hitchcock’s story of the two goats, one chewing up a reel of film, the other asking if it’s any good: ‘not bad, but personally I prefer the book’.

What disappointed me the most was that ultimately, I don’t think the issue of cloning is really of all that much importance to the film, which barely touches on most of the many abstract issues that the book insists on facing and dissecting. Romanek has decided to put the focus far more on relationships. It is more a story of thwarted love and the fact that the lovers are clones at times seems almost irrelevant.

Take the ending. Now I’d been looking for a good weep. The heart wrenching ending of the book can still make me absolutely bawl, even after reading the book at least 8 times. (In fact, sometimes I wonder if I keep reading it partly to enjoy that reliably cathartic moment.) The film approaches the ending relatively well, although it took an awful lot of violins to get the tears coming to my eyes.  Kathy is gazing at the field, the rubbish on the barbed wire fence is wafting in the wind and she is thinking about her little fantasy of Tommy coming running towards her. And the film ends with her wondering: were their lives really all that different from the lives of those they saved with their donations?  We all complete. Well, yes, but to me, this is a descent into platitude that the book manages always to avoid. What is the answer supposed to be? Are we supposed to think, no, their lives were just the same. Surely we aren’t supposed to take their lives simply as analogies for our own? They are different in the book: they are clones, they have been brain washed, they aren’t quite ‘human’ in many ways. I don’t really get that from the film, and I think that shows one really significant difference in Romanek’s approach.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that, in the book, their ‘love’ is shown to be simply learned behaviour, and that that is what is so sad. Even if that’s pushing it a bit, there’s far more to it than the idea of thwarted love that the film focuses upon, and I wonder if the decision to focus on this idea of thwarted love had much to do with attempting to ensure a large audience.

The film is of course a very stripped down version of the story, inevitable in transferring a 300 page novel to the screen, and certainly in many other ways the film finds very effective strategies to reproduce, using different techniques, the mood or ideas of the book. The restrained oddness of Kathy’s narrative in the book does find a kind of complement in the excellent and understated performance of Mulligan, but even more in the bleak and dreary washed out palettes of the beautifully shot film.

I was, however, a bit surprised that Romanek did not make more use of visual metaphors. The book says so much, indirectly, through what can at times be a rather heavy handed used of visual symbols. I think in particular here of that scene where the three friends go to see the boat where we really are treated to the full whammy of metaphor. Romanek is much more restrained, the setting functioning more to create mood than to convey subtleties on the condition of the lives depicted.

There are moments however: when the bird flies in the window, lands on the handle of the kettle, and then flies out again, the devastating contrast with the inhabitants of the Cottages is made quite clear. It made me think, for some reason, of a contrast to Maya Angelou’s ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, especially these final lines:

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go may be caged birds, but they don’t sing of freedom.

The scene that stood out most for me was when Ruth completes. One of the things readers of the book often wonder about is which parts are taken and which parts can one lose and live (issues we don’t hear about from Kathy obviously since these issues are part of the ‘dangerous territory’ the clones always shy away from. Here, as you get a full direct shot of the liver being removed, it is made rather nastily clear precisely why Ruth (and I will never sneer at Keira Knightley again after this great performance) completes on her third donation. No one attempts resuscitation or notes the time of death or shows any sign of regret: the scene concisely and coldly encapsulates what it takes Miss Emily a fair number of pages to explain in the book. This truly gave me a shiver.

The three stars, Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield, are all excellent. Garfield carries through the sense of confusion established by the child actor wonderfully. And the children who play them at a younger age are quite amazing. In fact they are startlingly convincing – in both appearance and mannerisms – as younger versions.

It’s a shame that the role of Miss Emily had to be so reduced: while a quietly chilling character in the book she is of little importance here – a huge waste of the fabulous Charlotte Rampling.

I’m not sure how many people are actually going to see this – there were precisely 8 of us in the theatre when I went. But I’d love to hear how others responded to the film.

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