Saturday, February 19, 2011

review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)

Warning. The following review will reveal details of the film’s plot.

It has been said many times before that the best science-fiction movies are those which succeed at tapping into our common humanity. Space travel, time travel and talking robots are dynamic tools for telling creative adventure stories, but those films which rise above the fray are possessed with a manner of speaking about who we are, what we would like to be and even what we fear about ourselves. In the science-fiction genre, movies does not require any specific, pre-packaged structure. Mark Romanek’s  Never Let Me Go is among the more subtle versions of sci-fi storytelling, revealing a world where almost everything is as we already it, to the extent that the actual fantastical elements of the plot are carefully hidden away from regular societies. The oddities in question are artificially created individuals whose sole purpose is to donate organs to their ‘real’ human counterparts while still young and healthy. Given how each is perfectly modelled after human beings, two significant effects result. The first concerns their donation of vital organs, after which a certain amount of generous giving, they die off. The second is on another level altogether: being 99% percent human has cursed the doomed souls with the capacity for intelligence, individualism, compassion, hatred and love. It is the full simulation experience, only that one does not live past his or her late twenties and is burdened with the knowledge they will die at a young age.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly) are resident students at a special school, secluded away in the countryside. Manufactured children are kept there and brought up just as regular schoolchildren would, although for the first few years of their lives they are unaware of their particular status. The viewer is introduced to our trio of protagonists as little children. Innocent, with all the wonderful, touching and unfortunate characteristics children have. As the years go by, Kathy and Tommy, the latter whom did not have many friends, grow closer and closer, which sparks jealousy from Ruth, who steals the first kiss from the boy. The kids grown into teenagers, and then into young adults, behaving as teenagers and young adults would. As time passes, they grow apart, only for fate to bring them together in the twilight of their lives, more mature to look back on what they’ve had and what they are. Long standing rumours about the possibility of delaying termination if two people can prove they are in love gives hope to Kathy and Tommy once they admit their feelings for one another. 

Never Let Me Go came and went from theatres last fall in a short time span. If it aspired to any box office success, I doubt it achieved it. Just as this reviewer was hoping Kathy and Tommy would succeed in their quest for a life extension, witnessing Never Let Me Go earn a second, much prolonged life in the years to come as people discover it on DVD, Blu-ray and television is something I would greet with much satisfaction. Mark Romanek is not the most prolific of directors when it comes to feature length films (on the flipside, he does produce a great many music videos), but his output thus far has been brave and unique. One Hour Photo was a creepily effective mixture of drama and thriller, and Never Let Me Go has proven to be one of the better science-fiction films of the past few years. Despite their settings and overall plot structure being as different as possible, Romanek’s picture reminded me of the 1982 classic Blade Runner, which also focused on the nature of humanity and characters, artificial constructs created to serve humans, on a personal journey to surpass their set expirations dates. Whereas in Blade Runner the ‘replicants’ as they were called were the antagonists and rather vile creatures, the central figures in Romanek’s movie are very much human, without, unfortunately, truly being human. Their fates have been decided and little to nothing can be done about it. What struck me the most about the intrigue was how little resistance is shown by these people destined to die away in their mid to late twenties. Kathy and Tommy do indeed make an attempt at earning an exemption by arguing their case of true love and possessing a soul (a criteria Tommy feels should solidify their case) in front of their former teachers in the movie’s climax, but other than that, there is a prevalent sense of accepted doom about their fate. Little of this is explained, but the film is wise enough to invite the viewer into concocting up various explanations, my own being that what transpires among the manufactured people occurs unbeknownst to much of the outside world. A donor is a donor and if a dying person is fortunate to have one, no questions are asked typically. So long as every Tom, Dick and Jane knows not of where the organs are taken from, no uproar can ever result. After all, Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and the rest of the artificial beings exist as slave labour.

This acceptance of fate conjures up an overall tone of deep sadness, compounded by the excellent acting on display. Dare I say that Keira Knightly, while nonetheless the worst of the trio here, succeeds in delivering genuine emotion and thought provoking character development. She is an actress whose style I have never grown accustomed to, but she is rather good here. Little more can be sais regarding Carey Mulligan, who arguably could not give a bad performance even if a director ordered her to do just that. Her Kathy is tremendously intelligent and perceptive in her outlook on life, and specifically the life she is forsaken with. Her conundrum is twofold: not only does the inevitable early and calculated death haunt her, but the days she has on this earth are all the more disappointing since she is not with the one she loves, Tommy, until very, very late. Her ruminations are dark, emotionally speaking, but still she ends up somewhat content at the end when love finally smiles upon her, albeit briefly. Romanek has his thematically and intellectually rich story told through the prism of a love tale, a decision which reaps plenty of rewards for it serves an emotional weight that the audience can hold onto, something the previously mentioned Blade Runner does not possess (a film the author loves dearly, just before anybody misinterprets what I’m saying here). Lastly, Andrew Garfield balances out a character deeply guided by a soft spoken and heartfelt nature, but prone to moments of ferocious anger when the world collapses on him.

Beyond the intelligent plotting and unforgettable acting is the cinematography. As a piece of cinema, an effective visual medium. Never Let Me Go is both brilliant and haunting. The pastoral English countryside and small, quaint villages the trio of protagonists visit are the backdrop for a tale of tragedy. Images are captured with sensitive care to juxtapose these two notions, the beautiful and the tragic, the result being a movie one can only take one’s eyes away from with great difficulty, but equally one that reserves a dark road trip with doomed people who must come to terms with the pre-ordained mortality that awaits them.  There is an unshakable loneliness which also teases the characters and several of the shots. Long walks down dimly lit corridors, the vast greenery outside beyond the school grounds, a trip to the sea shore where a desolate, ship wrecked boat awaits any who actually find some charm about it and pay a visit. The ship may be out of service for nautical expeditions, but it will still be there for some time, whereas the characters are full of vitality when forces beyond their control dictate that the time has come to slowly die.

If the movie gods have a sense of justice, Never Let Me Go will not fade into obscurity. Clever, provocative, even romantic, Mark Romanek’s latest outing is painted with tremendous colours, even though the tone and themes of the painting are glum. It is unlike the ordinary romance tale, unlike the ordinary drama, and unlike the ordinary science-fiction film. I think that for those reasons, fans of all three genres should check out Never Let Me Go.


M. Tamminga (@oneaprilday) said...

So glad to hear this beautiful film has another fan. You touched on exactly the things I love about it - great review.

thevoid99 said...

Goddamn It. Now you've convinced me to see it. I finally downloaded it and it's in my main hard drive. Now I'll see what the fuss is about.