Never Let Me Go, 2010.
Directed by Mark Romanek.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Charlotte Rampling, Domhnall Gleeson, Nathalie Richard and Andrea Riseborough.
A nihilistic tale following the relationships between two girls and a boy. Friends since childhood, they are forced apart and then back together by the dystopian reality they inhabit.
The first 20 minutes of Never Let Me Go are among some of the most boring ever committed to film. Not bad, just boring. Like a really, really dull BBC period drama that has very little dialogue and a lot of shot/reverse-shots of people looking at each other. You see, Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three friends from when they were at school to their mid-twenties, and that means child actors.
Thankfully, despite the director’s best efforts, it picks up. As soon as Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and (not so much) Keira Knightley replace the child actors, the film actually becomes quite engrossing. Those first two are breathtaking actors. The focus is on Carey Mulligan, and she absorbs it with immense maturity. She’s the Jack Wilshere of British film.
Along with the actors, Never Let Me Go has a very intriguing premise. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, the film imagines an alternate reality to our world. Not set in the future, nor even the present, but in some re-imagined late-70s, early-80s haze. Although the following is revealed only about half and hour in, it may be worth warning the potential spoilers start here. In this alternate history, cloning is a part of life, albeit a quietly ignored one. Children are produced from cloning procedures to grow into organ donors. They rarely live beyond 25. Society barely acknowledges their existence; they shut them away, presumably too ashamed of their dependence upon these doomed children. You can feel the guilt of a nation whenever the clones encounter normal people.
Our three main characters realise their purpose at the end of the film’s first part, when they are still children. It makes for quite a foreboding life. Later, Mulligan becomes a carer for those undergoing organ donations. It means she gets a few extra years before her first operation. We first see her at the side of one of her patients, an eye-patched girl lying pale white and weary in a hospital bed. But her battered complexion and patchy skin are the scars from a previous harvest – the fragile girl hasn’t even been operated on yet. It’s the film’s most heartbreaking moment, but she’ll save the lives of others in her sacrifice. It’s morally abhorrent, but frighteningly understandable.
All of this, however, is background noise. It can get quite loud at times, but the film’s main story is the relationships between Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley. The first two are made for each other, and they know it, but Knightley has a jealousy complex. She takes Garfield for her own and guards him fiercely. Nevertheless, the three remain close friends.
There aren’t any shootouts, androids or meta-humans – this is a subtle ‘sci-fi’ film (note the lower case) with a tragic romance. Sci-fi tales set in the future often hold a warning about our present, about what we might become if we continue how we are. Minority Report, for instance, takes our preoccupation with surveillance to its futuristic extreme. The Matrix does likewise for our dependence on technology. Although set beyond our time, they comment upon our present.
Never Let Me Go, however, seems to be set in the past. Rather than make you look at the present’s effect on the future, it encourages you to consider how the past impacts on today. It encourages you to question science’s role in the development of modern society. Every now and again you’ll see a logo saying ‘N.D.P.’ imprinted on a van door or jacket lapel. It stands for the National Donor Programme. This process, of growing humans for their organs, is a publicly funded government initiative. We’re all complicit, but any anger is directed towards our parents’ generation for letting it happen in the first place. The film is primarily a nihilistic take on the love between two people – but beneath the characters and setting, it’s a cry to arms. For what? Read a newspaper and take your pick.
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