Have you seen the 2005 Michael Bay film, The Island? That bloated and overbearing film was constantly in the back of my head as I was watching Never Let Me Go. The premise similarities are striking, as is the fact that the film, The Island, and the book, Never Let Me Go, came out around the same time. However, the film itself was purported to be a rip off of Michael Marshall Smith’s 1996 book Spares and Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth so I guess the concept isn’t all that new. That this is in the same vein as the rest of these works is not a spoiler, nor did the filmmakers want it to be. I was fortunate enough to catch an interview with the writer of the novel, Kazuo Ishiguro, together with screenplay writer Alex Garland. Alex clearly stated that the story they wanted to tell was a personal one and they did not want to be coy and keep anything a secret. In fact, there is a scene about 20 minutes in where someone, subtly but without question, spills the beans. The story of this dystopian world, a place that would allow this type of thing to happen, is just the backdrop and not the story that they wanted to tell. The morals and ramifications of such decisions are not discussed, so just because the storyteller does not want to share the answers does not mean that the audience won’t be asking, and be hounded by the questions.
In his novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (also the writer of The Remains of the Day) created a story of love, loss and hidden truths. In it he posed the fundamental question: What makes us human? Kathy (Carey Mulligan from An Education), Tommy (Andrew Garfield from the upcoming The Social Network) and Ruth (Keira Knightley from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) live in a world and a time that feels familiar to us, but is not quite like anything we know. They spend their childhood at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. When they leave the shelter of the school, and the terrible truth of their fate is revealed to them, they must also confront the deep feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that pull them apart.
To return to my previous point, this is a very British film. Where The Island is full of huge passions, big explosions and all the delicacy of a flying brick, Never Let Me Go is filled with people and pauses that are pregnant with repressed and subdued emotions (the comedian Eddie Izzard put it best here). That was one of the things that kept me at such a distance from the characters in this film. These people in this film underwent some very traumatic and emotional experiences and they go through it as calm as Buddhist monks. It wasn’t until near the end that someone has a genuine and well-needed outburst. Until that happened, I hadn’t realized how much of the characters’ unexpressed emotions were building up within me and how much I was waiting for that release, waiting for someone to be . . . well . . . human.
The other thing that kept me at a distance was what I brought up in the first paragraph. I can respect that the filmmakers did not want to focus on the sci-fi aspects, but by ignoring the new world they are building, they may just as well not have made it to begin with. People are completely and fundamentally selfish. Things need to be taken from people by force. Even by having the main trio of friends discuss or witness some sort of rebellion would have been plenty, just so we know that it exists and what happens to those who try. Without it though, I was constantly asking myself why these people were willingly going along with their unjust fates. However, listening to the writers after the screening, they brought up a great point. The slaves in America did not become free because they rebelled, but because those who enslaved them decided not to do so anymore. The Jews did not stop their own genocide because they rose up against their oppressors but because the Allies occupied Europe. Ishiguro stated in the interview, “People are remarkably accepting of their fate.” It seems a truthful, if cynical, worldview to say that people just don’t escape.
The standouts for this film were the trio of main actors as well as the three children who played their counterparts at a younger age. Izzy Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe play Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield respectively during their time at Hailsham. For being so young, all three of them brought a great deal of depth and heart to their roles and I will be looking out for all three of them to see what they do with their talent. Keira Knightley has always been an enigma for me on screen. She never really seems to buy into any role she’s playing and it feels like she just goes along with the motions and says the words given her. In this film, especially in certain scenes, she rose slightly from that opinion although it was almost cruel to cast her next to Carey Mulligan. Carey is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses because she imbues all her characters with such pathos; she is electric. As far as Andrew Garfield goes, his character in this film was a bit of a spaz and bordered on being slightly mentally challenged. I don’t know if that was by writer’s design or by actor’s choice but I wasn’t really digging it. That said, Garfield is a force to be reckoned with. He is going to be Spider-Man, for Pete’s sake. All six of these performances are the reason to see Never Let Me Go. It is a tour de force from all actors involved; I just wish the story would have let me get closer to them.