It's been a preposterous amount of time since Mark Romanek's last film, "One Hour Photo" was released, and in that time, he's flirted with making various big-budget studio dramas. In the end, though, both circumstance and opportunity conspired to bump Romanek off his last almost-movie, "The Wolf Man," which is a very good thing, indeed, because if he'd made that film, he would not have been available to make this film, and that would have been a loss.
"Never Let Me Go," adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a marvel of economy in storytelling, spare and solemn and heartbreaking, and Romanek has brought the film to luminous life, carefully constructing his film so that much of what is left unsaid is made clear through his visual representation of a world running down, rot at the edge of things. I've seen people tying themselves in knots trying to discuss the film without giving any spoilers away, but that seems silly to me. The film certainly gives you all the information you need right up front, and there's no "twist" to protect. If you're overly nervous about knowing anything about the movie, then just know that I recommend the film with one caveat: this movie will not hold your hand. Whatever reactions you have to it will be earned, not spoon-fed.
The movie posits an alternate version of our world where cloning technology was created in the '50s, and by the late '70s, when the film begins, it has been perfected. An entire generation of clones is being raised for spare parts for a world that has made the collective ethical decision to treat these walking organ farms with the illusion of freedom, while never actually acknowledging their humanity. You can't, after all, because if you do think of them as human, then what right does anyone have to their organs or tissue or blood or bone? If they are more than the sum of their spare parts, then they aren't spare parts at all.
Of course, you can't tell a clone that's what it is or that's what it was made for, so they go through the motions with them. They grow up at "school," where they are basically monitored around the clock to keep them in peak physical health and kept happy and stress-free. They're are confined, but the key is that they never think they are confined. They are cattle, but they think they are children. And the unease and imbalance in the relationships between the kids versus their relationships with the staff of their school is a big part of the film, especially in the build-up. Sally Hawkins plays a new teacher at the school, and from the moment she meets Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Kiera Knightley), she recognizes the quiet horror of what they're doing raising these kids this way for this purpose. She sees immediately that the illusion of a free life will be even more crushing to lose than an actual free life because when the illusion is stripped away, what remains will be bitter, ruined, broken, never able to trust or believe again. The urge to talk to them as people, about who they are and what they are, would be overwhelming, I think, and yet you risk breaking their bubble and hurting them anyway.
Since seeing "Never Let Me Go" last night, I've really been chewing on the film, debating my own reaction to it. It definitely affected me deeply, but it's the sort of movie that invites you to bring your own baggage to it. These characters are raised to be blanks. Personality is allowed but not exactly encouraged. Most of what they do appears to be busy work, something to occupy the time until they begin to donate. There's a secret language in the movie, a jargon that has sprung up around the lives of these characters and the others like them. "Donation." "Completion." They're code words for other things, used to take the sting out of it. I've heard a few people now complain that they think the characters are too passive, that they accept their fate too easily. By now, we're conditioned to expect "Logan's Run" from a film like this. They're going to bust out, get away, put on their existential running shoes and hit the bricks.
Only… they're not. Because people don't. And you don't realize you're trapped in life until well after it's happened. People accept things all day long that seem intolerable from the outside, but because they've made all these tiny compromises along the way, because they've accepted one indignity after another, and because they've been willing to let themselves be put down, one rung at a time, it never quite feels like an outrage. Not until it's too much to bear all at once, when you look around and realize the room you're standing in isn't a living room or an office cubicle or a shared bedroom, but a prison cell, a penance you're performing instead of a life you're living.
"Never Let Me Go" makes one ugly misstep, and it's literally in the film's closing moments, when Carey Mulligan spits out the movie's thematic summation in a shockingly clumsy move. Before that, it's one of those films that feels like it does exactly what it wants to do without any muss or fuss. There isn't really any one big gutpunching finish here, no Oscar moment. It's all tiny steps, quiet exchanges, and slow acceptance. Carey Mulligan (who I also saw in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" this week) is rapidly becoming one of the can't-ignore actresses of the moment. She's approachable, human, and wears her emotions close to the surface. Keira Knightley isn't a favorite of mine… I'm just not sure I really feel her work so much as I observe it… but she's quite affecting as Ruth. The glue that holds their two performances together is Andrew Garfield, and between this and "The Social Network," I understand why he's having his moment right now. He's been very good in films before now, but he's really starting to stretch now, and he's got a lovely damaged sweetness about him that makes this role work.
Mark Romanek, working with cinematographer Adam Kimmel, certainly reinforces the idea that he's a commanding visual artist with his work here. The film works on an almost subliminal level at times. It's gorgeous, but it's not artificial. It feels like a real world, well worn, the science-fiction in it simply matter of fact instead of fantastic. Rachel Portman's score is haunting. Technically, the film's a quiet gem. As I let it sink in, though, I'm more convinced than i was initially that the film as a whole is pretty special. It's enough of a high-class bummer that it's certainly not for everyone, but if any of this sounds good to you, you'll be rewarded for your time and attention.
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