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Elegaic, thoughtful, moving and provoking

Never Let Me Go – Mark Romanek

Ilie Nastase, after he had been overwhelmed by an impossibly young Bjorn Borg (20) in the 1976 Wimbledon final, was asked why he had lost. Ruefully Nastase replied, “We’re all playing tennis out there – I don’t know what he’s playing.”

Carey Mulligan’s fellow actors could be forgiven for feeling the same way in this flawed but at times engrossing movie. Mulligan is luminous: she simply lights up the screen; and when she is on it, she is the only thing you look at. Unlike Kiera Knightley who tries hard and isn’t at all bad, Mulligan not only has the quirky beauty that intrigues as well as engages, but she has a good voice: and she knows how to use it. Like Borg, in the tennis example above, Mulligan is frighteningly young (25) for the kind of screen assurance she is gradually acquiring and allied to an unteachable instinct, she shows every sign of becoming one of our finest actors – of either gender. It is encouraging to hear that she likes and wants to continue with theatre work. Most of our very best actors over the years, male and female, have mastered each discipline to the benefit of both. Prematurely nominated for an Oscar in the over-rated An Education, if she can stay away from the Hollywood machine and unlike Borg, not get bored with success, then this extraordinary young actress will win a deserved Oscar one day.

Andrew Garfield, fresh from his excellent performance in The Social Network again proves a most engaging screen presence with an unusual combination of strength and vulnerability just right here for his role as Tommy. Adam Kimmel’s superb cinematography, Barney Pilling’s subtle, assured editing and an evocative, plangent original score by Rachel Portman combine well to offer Romanek’s film a very distinctive, if subdued tone. The pace of the film I can only describe as elegiac: steady, mournful but engrossing in a way that draws you in to the inner lives of the quite unique characters of Ishiguro’s imagined world; familiar to those of you who know the book: for those like me, who don’t, the following contains spoilers.

We meet Kathy (Mulligan), Tommy (Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley) as children, pupils at Hailsham School: an institution having the precise, polite, metronomic control of an English residential Public School. The film traces the bourgeoning friendship pre and post-pubescent between these three. Romanek has gone to great pains in casting the younger actors here such that the transition to adulthood is remarkably convincing. He also manages to convey a sense of underlying tension, unspoken unease, even before we discover the disturbing truth that despite all outward appearances of normality, all the pupils at Hailsham, as a result of conscious political policy, are clones: created as living donors of body parts for non-cloned human beings – ‘originals’.

A sympathetic teacher, immediately sacked for her honesty, reveals to the three friends their pre-destined fate: to begin to donate body parts in early maturity and eventually after perhaps two or three donations ‘complete’- die; the purpose of their creation fulfilled. The only exception to this rigorous predestination, in a macabre form of political sensibility, is that some may apply to be ‘carers’ who offer emotional support to their fellow clones as they face their painful and inexorable fate.

We meet the friends as adults when they leave Hailsham to spend time before they begin their ‘donations’, at The Cottages, a residential commune on the Norfolk Coast where they are kept healthy but completely isolated from the ‘real’ world. Despite our sense of a deep connection between Tommy and Kathy, a more needy Ruth forms a sexual relationship with him. Even more an outsider as a consequence, Kathy applies to be a Carer. The three meet up again 10 years later when, now an experienced Carer, Kathy comes across both Tommy and Ruth, each having already made 2 donations. The resolution of these inter-linked, cruelly pre-determined fates brings this delicate little film to a sombre but deeply moving conclusion presaged in the opening scenes.

It is always a moot point whether it is better to have read a book before the film treatment of it; or vice versa: and the only conclusion I have come to is that it can go both ways; we should take each case on its merits. I have not read this Booker-nominated novel but it is clear that most who have were deeply impressed by it; including director Romanek I suspect. It may be unwise but I think interesting to take from the film what I can and imagine the differences – for as a broad general principle the medium of language and the form of the novel is better suited to the accumulative persuasion and exploration of complex ideas; while film is a uniquely powerful medium for stirring and conveying sensation and emotions. Of course each medium can do both but I think the relative point holds good.

I can see that using the cloned community of carefully nurtured ‘donors’ as a device, Ishiguro is able to explore deep ideas like what it is to be a human being, in what is our sense of personal identity rooted and especially the profound role played in these philosophical questions by our relationships with one another: notably what it is to see another human being as a human being. What it is that makes our response to one another what Wittgenstein called – “an attitude to a soul.”

All too human in every visible respect; Kathy, Tommy and Ruth and the generic group they represent are sometimes called by the ‘original’ human beings in this story – creatures. Yet there is nothing in their relationships within their kind that remotely approaches the profound inhumanity of their ‘creators’. Of course we do find some originals ill at ease with their role in this soulless social policy but they accede to it none-the-less.

If our essential humanity is not to be found in our human shape and form; in our imagination and capacity for thought; or our emotional lives especially empathy and a sense of connection with others – all of which experiences are shared by the clones – then in what exactly does it consist? Indeed Ishiguro takes it further: the cruel exploitation of these ‘creatures’ by the ‘real’ human beings tempts us to regard the clones not the originals as displaying qualities many would regard as uniquely human. This is a moral universe in which the ‘grammar’ of morality has become disturbingly unclear. This dilemma is given an extra twist when we discover that the clones were supposedly modelled from the “trash” of humanity: thus Kathy scours a porn magazine in an effort to find her ‘possible’ the original from which she was cloned.

As a device this is in the end deeply unsatisfactory on a literal level: stem cell research indicates the possibility of growing new organs in isolation without having to farm them from donors. The donation process makes little sense as exactly what organs could a donor sacrifice up to 3 or even more times? A kidney perhaps; the odd cornea? Critical organs like the heart, lungs, liver are once-for-all not gradualist. Also, morally and emotionally, however bleak our view of society, it is a big step to see in the 21st century a people not at war, willing to accept this degree of inhumanity: though of course many will argue this is exactly the way we use and abuse animals for our own purpose. Unfortunately the animal argument begs the question about what is unique about being a human being.

In the end what the film can only hint at but I suspect the book could more satisfyingly exploit, is the focus Ishiguro’s metaphorical device gives to moral questions in our own lives. The most acute lesson of human maturity is the transience of life itself, the inevitability of death: for the clones this glimpse of mortality is given a timescale as inevitable as the fact of death itself. This distils the existential fragility of life and resonates powerfully with one’s cherishing of life for its own sake and to live it fully taking each day as a gift. Cleverly, just as human beings find emotional and intellectual mechanisms to deny the reality and finality of death, so Ishiguro gives his clones a similar comforting illusion: that if they can prove that they are genuinely in love then they may be granted the grace of a few years together, thus deferring their becoming donors.

The extraordinary quality of Carey Mulligan’s performance is not that she explicitly poses any of these deeply perplexing questions: but that she conveys powerfully a sense of the kind of inner emotional turmoil and perplexity of thought upon which they are based and from which they emerge.

Never Let me Go is not an easy film: I suspect lovers of the book will feel it does not capture the richness and texture of the book. However if any of my speculation above is accurate to the spirit of the book – then that accuracy derives entirely from the quality of the film.

As long as you don’t expect the wrong kind of film, and this review offers some indications, then I would highly recommend this tenderly sorrowful but very human little film.

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