Never Let Me GoWednesday, November 17, 2010
It seems like a hell of a long time since Mark Romanek directed his last feature film, One Hour Photo. One of my favourite films of the last ten years, the bar was set high for his follow-up, Never Let Me Go. Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the movie has a fine pedigree but it falls short of expectations.
The main issue for me is that a lot of it feels lifeless. It’s a story that doesn’t have any action but it has lots of emotions to contend with. It should be bubbling with energy. Instead it feels cold and detached. It’s far too clinical. It’s only at the end that it sparks into life.
The opening section of the film revolves around Halisham public school. The children in this school are told how special there are. They’re also told that if they venture beyond the perimeter of the property that they’re going to get murderised by ne’er-do-wells. Hmm. This is a bit weird - aggressive fear-mongering from teachers. And why do the kids have electronic tags? Prisoners should be wearing those kinds of things, not children.
If you’ve read the book and already know the premise of the film there’s a lot of fun to be had noting the small details. For instance, there’s a scene where the teachers make a big deal about finding some cigarettes and they lecture the children on the health issues - their precious lungs could be damaged if they smoke the nasty fags. Then you have the fastidious way that bottles of milk are lined up for all the kids to drink. Sure enough this isn’t too odd - I used to have milk at school. But the kids also have a batch of pills to take. Yep, got to keep the little ones healthy. Got to keep those lungs clear and got to make sure that they have proper nutrition. Wouldn’t want them to develop any nasty diseases. After all, what would they do with those lovely organs?
One of the most disappointing things for me in the opening sequence was the way that one of the major scenes was fluffed. There’s a budding romance between a couple of the Halisham children - Tommy and Kathy - and in one scene Tommy buys Kathy a cassette tape. The song that Kathy listens to is called ‘Never Let Me Go’. It should be a huge moment in the film but instead it passes by with barely a whimper.
I was also disappointed with Sally Hawkins’ performance as the kids teacher. I don’t know why but she seems to be getting worse and worse as an actor. She’s developed a jarring range of tics that she’s begun repeating in each role. Her performances don’t feel natural - they feel artificial and mannered. She was even less believable here than she was in Happy Go Lucky and I was mentally shooing her off the screen every time she turned up.
Thankfully Hawkins disappears from the film early on. She makes the mistake of having a conscience and tells the children that they’re clones and that they’re going to have their organs harvested later in life. Again this is another scene that doesn’t really work. The children sit there quietly alarmed and Hawkins overacts like crazy, trying too hard to convey her horror. In order for a scene like this to work you need to believe that there is some inner life to the characters - that under the surface, things are happening. Instead the scene is icily detached.
The second part of the film is dedicated to the characters’ life in The Cottages. Here the characters finally have some sort of interaction with society. However, it’s very limited. There’s one amusing scene where they all go to a cafe and none of them know how to order food. So they all end up ordering the same thing - sausage and chips (yummy!).
A relationship also begins between Tommy and Ruth (played by Keira Knightley). Ruth had stolen Tommy away from Kathy while they were still at Halisham and the springs of their bed get a good pounding - Ruth is fucking Tommy pretty much just to spite Kathy; that and the fact she can’t tolerate the idea that a boy would like anyone more than her. The relationship is very immature but this is entirely appropriate considering the character’s sheltered existence. It’s almost like they’re playing at being adults - they don’t quite understand what it’s all about.
One of the most crushing things about the film is the passivity of the characters. They put up no resistance and like children they put their faith in whispers and gossip - there are rumours that any clones that prove that they’re in love will have their donations deferred for a while. Instead of actually doing anything - running away, attacking those that kill them - they go along with everything like lambs to the slaughter.
The strongest scenes are the ones at the end. Tommy leaves Ruth and finally begins a relationship with Kathy, his one true love. Buoyed by the rumour that couples in love will have their donations deferred, they try and prove their feelings for one another - Tommy takes some of his artwork to the mysterious Madame (a woman who used to visit Halisham to judge the children’s artwork to see if it was good enough to be displayed at ‘The Gallery’). Upon visiting the woman they also encounter their former headmistress. They’re very coldly informed that there are no deferrals and that The Gallery was a failed attempt to prove that clones have souls. One of the women then calls them poor creatures.
The lack of feeling is quite brutal. And considering that it’s heavily implied that the Madam and the headmistress are in a same sex relationship, it’s even more amazing that they’re quick to dismiss people as less than human. As people who are part of a group that’s faced a lot of prejudice, you’d like to assume that their thinking would be a little more enlightened. Surely it’s more than clear that these kids have souls - they think, they feel, they love; they’re human. What does it matter how they came to be on this planet? Is a ‘test tube’ child less human than one that was ‘naturally’ conceived? Instead they’re coldly dismissed as trash. It’s a horrible echo of modern society - in the not too distant wake of civil rights abuses, it’s chilling that so many ethnic minorities can march against gay marriage and gay rights.
The most powerful scene in the film is the one where Tommy finally realises he has no hope and collapses on the ground, screaming. Could anyone doubt that anyone who reacts in such a way doesn’t have a soul? Tommy realises how precious life is and all that he’ll lose - this isn’t the reaction of an animal or a piece of meat.
In the end we get to see Tommy give his last donation and ‘complete’. Speaking to a friend of mine about the scene, we both agreed that the most disturbing thing was the way that Tommy is mistreated once the anaesthesia kicks in. While he’s conscious, he’s treated with respect but once he’s asleep he’s treated like cattle - his head is roughly grabbed and his body is pulled about. Even in a situation as shitty as this, you’d hope the medical staff would have the humanity to treat their subject with respect - they’re professionals after all. Instead Tommy has to suffer one final indignity.
I think the film missed a trick in not ending the film with the song ‘Never Let Me Go’. In its place the film ends with a piece from the rather unremarkable score. I think the song would have given the ending another layer of emotion - it’s our destiny that we’ll lose our loved ones, but we shouldn’t have to let them go prematurely.