Film Review #237: Never Let Me Go
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carrie Mulligan, Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield
Having enthusiastically lent my own copy of Kasuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go to a friend after finishing it, I don’t have it here to check the exact page where the Japanese-born British writer actually uses the word “clones” for the first time. I did circle the word when I came upon it, and I’m betting it’s within the last 25 pages out of just over 300. As novels go, this is something of a triumph, because of course you “know” well before that moment, but not having seen the word itself for so much of the story creates a kind of tension.
The last time I recall reading a novel that I so could not put down, it was Caleb Carr’s historical murder and detective mystery The Alienist. That was in 1994. I read The Alienist all the way to Vancouver on a plane and was, I’m afraid, fairly anti-social for the first day or so between sessions of the conference I was attending until I finished it. As NPR and Washington Post book reviewer Maureen Corrigan reminds us, such novels are really about thinking – about how we know what we think we know – and The Alienist combines a cracking good serial murder yarn, set vividly in New York City at one of its most fascinating moments, with the very roots and early invention of detective work.
But Ishiguro’s novel, which has a huge following of fierce partisans – among them the remarkable English actress Carrie Mulligan, who plays Kathy H., the narrator, and has said she “could not bear” to think of anyone else getting the part – is not really about thinking, except on the surface as something to occupy us and the characters alike, even though there are a number if plot lines that seem to be about finding something out. In fact the 28-year-old Kathy H. is clearly not honest and searching with herself much of the time.
Instead, it’s really a story about being. As such, given its meditative style, it’s extremely hard to consider adapting this novel for the screen. Though it’s been called “sci-fi” that label seems odd somehow, because it completely lacks the action-blockbuster arc of its cousins in most contemporary re-tellings of the Pinocchio tale. Such close relatives would be films with characters like Wesley Snipes in the Blade movies, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley who takes that ontologically tantalizing swerve in the last installment of the Alien films, for example. But even on a grand scale, movies about being that are not made in the action-blockbuster mold have a hard time connecting – witness Spielberg’s criminally under-rated A.I., Artificial Intelligence.
Mark Romanek’s screen version, which released in mid-September, has been eagerly anticipated because the novel itself is so well-regarded, but also because this film has some of the best casting in memory. If you’re old enough to remember the 1982 screen version of John Irving’s 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, you’ll recall it was inconceivable that anyone but Robin Williams could play Garp. Just so here: no one but Mulligan could play Kathy H., Keira Knightly is brilliant as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield – plastered all over American multiplexes in The Social Connection, but first coming to my attention last year in Red Riding Trilogy – embodies Tommy. Moreover, I’ve never seen such good casting of younger versions of movie characters. Isabel Meikle-Small as young Kathy looks like Mulligan – and has her facial expressions and movements down cold. Ella Purnell is immediately recognizable as the child who becomes Keira Knightly’s Ruth. And Charlie Rowe makes Tommy actually clearer than he is in the novel – just as Sally Hawkins does for Miss Lucy, the teacher who abruptly fired for explaining to the students at Hailsham what their lives will be and what they are for.
Hailsham is a secluded boarding school in the British countryside where, in the 1970s, we meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in what I presume to be the fifth or sixth grade. Charlotte Rampling is headmistress Miss Emily, presiding over the school’s regimen of keeping the children in serene isolation and optimally healthy while engaging them in an education that emphasizes the arts and sports. The arts, as they figure out years later, somehow comprise “verifiable proof” of their true natures. Kathy and Tommy decide that artistic production might be evidence they can truly love – they track down Miss Emily to seek deferrals of their own “donations” of body parts – whereas Miss Emily refines that stab in the dark to mean more precisely that they have souls. A teacher of mine once talked as hauntingly about the ancient cave paintings at Lescaux in this way: that at the moment those prehistoric cave dwellers picked up their charcoal and made images, they became human.
Word of mouth and a great deal of buzz have surely informed you that this is a love triangle of sorts: first it’s Tommy and the not-very-admirable Ruth, and then Kathy and Tommy, with the soon-deceased Ruth’s blessing. This occurs over three chapters roughly each a decade apart, in school, leaving the school to be stashed in some backwater cottages and imagine finding their “originals,” separate and some years later reunite briefly as one by one they “complete.” It is Kathy who’s left in the end, gazing into a field on a scrubby back road, her last voice-over an additional piece of dialogue not in the novel, in which she wonders – somewhat jarringly and redundantly, the very opposite of what Ishiguro accomplishes by withholding the word “clone” for so long – if she and the rest of us are not so different after all.
These performances are just superb and I will likely see this movie again. But the film has some flaws that explain complaints that it “fails to connect” and arise, ironically, from some effort to make this more “cinematic.” First, there is Rachel Portman’s overbearing and melodramatic score, so intrusive that it becomes distracting. We do not need a note of it, much less the Douglas Sirk-like deluge we get, to feel anguish in the presence of this story and these performances. Second, so much is pared away from the novel in order to emerge with a lean and action-laden, a less “interior,” plot, that I’m left wondering – as I wondered after “Garp” – whether I would like the movie if I had not read the book. That is, perfect casting or not, would the film be as rich, as emotionally intelligible, without already knowing the novel?
That is too late for me to answer. Ishiguro himself doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s long met regularly with his neighbor, Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay, to talk over their work, and besides serving as the film’s executive producer, pronounced himself pleased with the script.
So Never Let Me Go is, I suppose, a murder mystery after all.
A shorter version of this review appears in the October 21, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Never Let Me Go” screens for the second week at Manlius Art Cinema.