Thursday, October 14, 2010

Never Let Me Go: This one won't let you go

Never Let Me Go (2010) • View trailer for Never Let Me Go
4 stars (out of five) • Rated R for brief nudity, sexual candor and unsettling dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.10

Science-fiction isn't solely robots and space ships; some of the genre's best entries aren't even recognized as such. A story's speculative elements can be concealed beneath a cloak of social commentary, character interaction or even comedy.

Despite plenty of adolescent "play-acting training," Kathy
(Carey Mulligan, left), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy
(Andrew Garfield) are completely paralyzed by the process
of ordering a meal during their first visit to a restaurant;
they wind up requesting the same items simply because
this decision requires less thought. But why does this
"ritual" intimidate them so?
1951's The Man in the White Suit, ostensibly one of Alec Guinness' numerous British comedies of that decade, concerns a scientist who develops a fabric that repels dirt and won't tear; clothes made of this material never need to be replaced. Unexpectedly, though, the story's frivolous elements are overshadowed when blue-collar workers in the British garment industry go on a rampage, correctly deducting that their jobs are in jeopardy.

Pure sci-fi, but with a pretty powerful message.

Margaret Atwood's highly disturbing The Handmaid's Tale was made into an equally unsettling 1990 film; the story is set in an unspecified future, when radical, racist, religious elements have taken control of our country. Natasha Richardson stars as one of the many young, healthy white women who are brainwashed into bearing children that will become a new "pure" generation.

Atwood's novel, clearly an angry response to those wanting to roll back the clock on women's rights, feels even more relevant 20 years later, as we routinely hear of Islamic radicals who would deny women any rights ... and not just their women, but all women.

Science-fiction ... or uncanny prescience? That's when the genre truly makes its mark.

All of which brings us to Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro's unsettling 2005 novel, and brought to brilliant, heartbreaking life by actors Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Director Mark Romanek draws memorable performances from his three stars, while quietly indicting those who regard some living things as inferior to the rest of us.

High-flying concepts float through this narrative  eugenics, slavery, brainwashing, torture  but never surface as blatant accusations; we're presenting with a premise, exposed with painful intimacy to three engaging protagonists, and left to draw our own conclusions.

(Sidebar: Hannah Arendt wrote a book many years ago, after she attended 1963's trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, that she subtitled The Banality of Evil. Her message remains timeless: We are all complicit when scientific  or medical  progress overtakes ethics, and when we come to accept a morally bankrupt status quo because it's expedient to do so, or because it becomes routine ... or because we hope to benefit.)

Never Let Me Go takes place in a parallel-reality England: an intriguing blend of quaint, quiet, post-WWII hamlets and occasional hiccups of modern-style technology. We meet Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Ruth (Ella Purnell) and Tommy (Charlie Rowe) as adolescent children at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school run by the mildly condescending Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling).

Disturbing details emerge. The children begin each morning with a carefully measured liquid breakfast and some pills, dispensed in the little paper containers commonly found in a hospital ward. All the children are oddly formal with the adult staff. Any little scrapes or bruises are examined immediately by an on-call doctor.

Hailsham receives no visitors, save for deliverymen who eye the children uneasily, as if afraid to get too close to them.

The children accumulate tokens for high marks and good behavior; these can be used as "money" to purchase the treasures that occasionally arrive in cardboard cartons. The contents are spilled onto tables, as something of an ersatz store; eager young faces excitedly eye every item.

We see junk: discarded clothes, broken toys, games with pieces missing. Most of the children lack the awareness to realize this; they have no basis for comparison.

Kathy, the most sensitive of our three protagonists, does understand this time. Dawning awareness floods across young Meikle-Small's face. She's humiliated and shamed, but not quite sure why. This sensitivity will inform her life, when she becomes a young adult.

The facility introduces a new guardian, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), and she becomes our entry to additional details. After seeing a ball left abandoned when it sails over a shortish stone wall during a cricket-esque game  which, jarringly, employs a tennis racquet instead of a bat  Miss Lucy asks why nobody has gone to fetch it.

Her owl-eyed charges quite solemnly explain that nobody dares leave the grounds, citing a few gruesome cases where children who ventured into the surrounding woods were found dead.

Miss Lucy, appalled, gently asks why they would believe such a story.

The reply: "Why would anybody make up something like that?"

The chilling implication: Children believe what we tell them. Why shouldn't they?

Miss Lucy doesn't last long at Hailsham, and so she's not in a position to help when Kathy, who has grown fond of Tommy, endures heartbreak after Ruth  supposedly her best friend  deliberately intrudes and makes him her boyfriend. Tommy, always a high-strung boy, is overwhelmed and cannot resist ... even though he prefers Kathy.

These childhood events are recounted via flashback by the twentysomething Kathy (now played by Carey Mulligan), who we meet in a hospital setting. She's an observer of some sort  a "carer," we eventually learn  but this visit is brief; we're whisked back into the past, but not quite as far, to the time when Kathy, Ruth (now Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, currently on view in The Social Network) are released from Hailsham, and into the outside world.

They join peers from other, similar, institutions, now sharing digs at a sort of halfway house. Adulthood has brought clarity; they're now all aware of their "responsibility"  even if we aren't ... not quite  which they (mostly) accept with the equanimity of those who expect nothing else from life. Ruth and Tommy are still an item; Kathy remains on the outside, taking long walks or losing herself in a book.

In a nice touch, we never get a precise bead on these examples of pop culture. Our brief glimpses of movies and TV shows reveal entertainment that feels familiar, but not identifiable. We can't quite read the titles of the books  inevitably second-hand  that Kathy devours.

The three-way dynamic ... evolves. Things change. Not for the better.

Romanek amplifies the malevolence of these proceedings by focusing on the ordinary and mundane. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel's gorgeous tableaus are filled with painterly still lifes: deserted beaches, rows of seaside flats, living room tables laden with the ephemera of residency. The stillness and isolation  we seldom see workaday people shopping, vacationing, whatever  augment the unsettling atmosphere just as much as composer Rachel Portman's memorably melancholy score.

(Memorable? Too weak a word. Unforgettable, more like. Buy this music, take it home, and this film's every heartbreaking moment will flood back into your brain.)

Mulligan, making good on the Oscar-nominated work she did in last year's An Education, is a revelation. Her eyes truly are the windows into Kathy's soul, and her painfully raw emotional response to each milestone in this character's unusual life is unerringly real. Mulligan draws us into this story; we cannot resist the naked honestly of her work.

Ishiguro had only his prose, to make his case (which he nonetheless accomplished with masterful precision). Mulligan adds a visual element, putting a face  a soul  to Kathy, and by extension to Ruth, Tommy and every one of their peers whom we don't meet, but learn about through implication.

Knightley's performance is similarly powerful, albeit in a wholly different manner. Unlike Kathy, Ruth doesn't "get" their role in life, or how to navigate among "regular" people who cross to the opposite side of the street at their approach. Ruth tries to conceal her frustration through play-acting; the set of Knightley's mouth, often twisted into a half-smile that slides into a grimace, reveals the desperation with which this young woman behaves.

If she pretends hard enough, clings hard enough, she can make Tommy love her. It's important. And not for the usual reasons.

Garfield's Tommy remains overwhelmed, compliant, far too willing to please and do what's expected. Garfield's face is awash in shattered despair: the panicked look of a little schoolboy who missed an important exam, and hopes for a chance to make it up.

Readers who've stayed with me this long will have realized, by now, that Romanek's film is not designed for casual viewing. It's also not for children, and the idiots who brought their two young daughters to last week's preview screening should be flogged. This is grim stuff, all the more so for the way that Mulligan's Kathy gets into our head and makes it impossible to forget this parable any time soon.

Stuff and nonsense?

Don't be so sure.

Jodi Picoult's novel, My Sister's Keeper — made into a film last year  concerns parents who have a second child in order to provide donor-matching blood (and more) to help keep their leukemia-stricken first daughter alive. This isn't idle fiction; in 2002, BBC News reported on a couple who relied on Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to help them select an embryo  in effect, to create a baby  designed to grow into a child who could provide a bone-marrow transplant to their son, who suffered from the potentially fatal blood disorder known as thalassaemia.

We should be nervous.

Never Let Me Go will make you nervous.

No comments:

Post a Comment