Friday, October 8, 2010

Never Let Me Go (***1/2)

Directed by Mark Romanek


I guess I understand why the posters and trailers for Never Let Me Go try to hide the fact that it's a science fiction film. It's a genre that has become overloaded in various cliches (usually involving space ships and extra-terrestrials), and when films like this (dealing with human emotions and love) come along, it's hard to really market it successfully. There was a similar issue in 2006 with Children of Men, a sci-fi masterpiece that also dealt with more humane characters. Universal botched the marketing on its release, and though it's now considered a contemporary classic, you couldn't pay someone to see it when it first came out. I don't know if Never Let Me Go will have the same fate, but you can't blame the promotions for pushing the "We have an amazing cast!" angle. Especially when you consider that the cast includes three of the most talented and exciting English actors working today.

In Hailsham Academy during the mid-1970's, a large group of children are taught and housed in a very strict, intentional fashion. Every child is watched over by the academy's headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) with a terse eye. They're never allowed to leave the estate or interact with any other children who may be from outside of Hailsham. Three of those children are Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, whose intelligence seems to be higher then the rest of the students. Tommy is an outsider amongst the rest of the boys and is known for throwing wild, violent tantrums, but Kathy offers him friendship because she finds him to be a sensitive alternative to the rest of the rowdy boys and takes a liking to him. Soon after, with almost spiteful haste, Kathy's best friend Ruth offers Tommy her heart and he accepts as Kathy watches with rampant jealousy.

The children are not totally privy as to why they are holed up in at Hailsham, but when a new guardian, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), comes to teach their class, she becomes overwhelmed by what she has seen and spills the truth to them: they are clones created to give organs for people who may otherwise die. They are part of a medical system developed in the last century that has helped create cures for many terminal illnesses, and they will likely not even live to middle age. Immediately after stating the truth, Miss Lucy is dismissed, but Kathy, Tommy and Ruth never forget what they've learned. Later, when they're eighteen, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), are moved to The Cottages where they prepare for their lives as "donors".

By this time, Ruth and Tommy's relationship has matured sexually but not emotionally. Kathy watches them from afar, still hurt that her friend would steal her crush, but still too timid to disrupt their relationship. In The Cottages, the three learn of a rumor: if two donors can prove that they love each other, they can request a "deferment", which can give the two in love at least a few years of freedom to be together before they're sent off for surgeries. Ruth and Tommy seem genuinely interested in the idea, but Kathy has grown weary thinking of their future and applies to become a "carer", which is someone who looks after the donors as they depreciate during their surgeries. But being a carer doesn't totally dismiss your donor responsibility. It only postpones it, and Kathy begins to see if she can find a way to experience this "deferment" she'd heard of, before she loses her chance.

The film is based on the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Like the film, the book is broken into three equal parts: the Hailsham childhood years, the teenage years at The Cottages, and lastly, the adult years before "completion". I'm not sure how much the film benefits from having such a strict adherence to the source material's structure. The film's few pace issues could have been solved by shaving quite a bit off of the first segment. But then again, I've never been a fan of the thirty-minute childhood prologue (which explains my distaste for the 1996 film Shine), so this could be just a matter of taste. I do think it helps my case, though, when you consider how much more exciting and interesting the last two-thirds of the film are.

A lot of that has to do with the tremendous collection of acting talent. Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley all deliver first-rate performances and each perfectly create a distinct, nuanced character, complimenting each other exquisitely (in a fair world, both Mulligan and Knightley would be in line for Oscar nominations, but that doesn't seem like the forecast). As other films like The Island have shown, it's difficult to tell the story of a "clone", but Never Let Me Go doesn't really seem to get hung up on problems like that. Instead, the film treats them as they should be, like real people. The fact that they are not de facto people doesn't prevent screenwriter Alex Garland (also wrote the two Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later... and Sunshine) from treating them as though they are. For all the hangups I may have felt hampered the first third of the screenplay, Garland's script is incredibly absorbing, filled with just enough drama and intrigue to allow the viewer to really care.

The film was directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and more interestingly - as I found on IMDB - the music video for Michael Jackson's "Scream"), who is able to successfully pull off the balance between the sci-fi and romance elements. Any trailer would have someone figuring that Never Let Me Go was just a stuffy romantic costume drama, but it's a lot more dense then that. There are several levels of emotional turmoil here and Romanek balances all of the thematic elements pretty competently. Sure, it helps when you have Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley to express the emotional core of your themes, but there have been other films with better casts that weren't able to generate the emotional reaction that this film does.

I can see some people seeing Never Let Me Go and being a bit disappointed with its science fiction elements. If all I knew about the film was from the trailer, I would have figured it to be a well-cast period romance. Not that the film isn't a period romance, but when you bring any kind of clone into the mix, you're bound to trigger certain prejudices from the audience. Whatever category you may try to shoehorn the film into being, it succeeds because it deftly defies both romance and science fiction. It carries various aspects of genre while being earnest enough to rise above it. The best way to break away from genre pitfalls is to make sure that the characters come first, and Never Let Me Go makes sure that they're telling a story about people - well, kind of.

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