"Maybe from as early as when you're five or six, there's been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: 'One day, maybe not so long from now, you'll get to know how it feels.' So you're waiting, even if you don't quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don't hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you–of how you were brought into this world and why–and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it's a cold moment. It's like walking past a mirror you've walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange." (from Katzuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go).
Mark Romanek has made a beautiful film based on Katzuo Ishiguro's beautiful novel Never Let Me Go, and I finally got to see it last night. It is crucial and fierce in its own secret, sad way, like a terse stern poem that blossoms into a life-changing philosophy inside your head. The imagery is stark yet banal, intended to be forgettable and yet the amnesia of it all forces you to turn everything you see into nostalgia: a brick boarding school, an old wire fence festooned with litter, a rusty abandoned boat on a beach, a cloudy sky, a wet gray road... There's a tension in every moment among the three main characters, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy (played by two sets of actors, one as children, one as teens and adults), but the tension is somehow sidetracked by the dreaminess of it all. From the start you know these kids stowed away in boarding-school in England aren't actual "kids," as much as strangely over-alert facsimiles, not robots as much as wannabes.
Romanek's eye provides both distance and subtlety to the happenings and surroundings, and as the movie progresses you begin to understand what is at stake, just like in the novel: the secret that's not really a secret, just life itself. Ruth, Kathy and Tommy were created for their organs, and their organs only. What's inside them will eventually have to be harvested so that "actual people" can live. The brutal honesty of their existence is mollified by the manners and routines of Hailsham, their school, but it's always in the air, a feeling that they aren't real enough to be human but everything human about them is all that matters -- everything human, that is, except their souls, which are defined as throw-away commodities in order to make killing them for their kidneys, etc. palatable, even ethical.
This situation of course sounds sci-fi-morose. The way it is delivered, however, is pure finesse, and the sadness creeps through the circumspect words, the beige and gray uniforms of the school, and the tenderness the three main characters share as they grow into adulthood, an adulthood that will be cut short through a series of donations that quickly deprives them of the organs they need to stay alive.
In the teen/adult phase, Carey Mulligan plays Ruth, a quick-witted girl who falls in love with Andrew Garfield's Tommy; the triangle is completed by Keira Knightly as Kathy, a twitchy, energetic girl who steals Tommy from Ruth in their childhood and lives to regret it. The triangulation gives Never Let Me Go its drama, but that drama is given meaning through what the three have to go through in order to find reasons to be who they are. The three all have to figure out how not to be heroes, in other words; institutionalization has made them docile and compliant, and yet the need to love makes them want to break apart from who they have been told they are. Never Let Me Go's story is kind of an exercise in Stockholm Syndrome, capturing both the masochism and the tranquility of finding a way to exist in a world that wants to ignore you until you can be used properly. That dark truth guides the way each of the actors perform their roles, and gives the movie a cohesion so compressed and grim you feel a part of their world in a way that most movies never accomplish. The imagery gets layered into your own scrapbook, and you feel an essential connection to the people and the places, especially at the end of the film when Kathy and Tommy reach "completion," the euphemism used to define what happens after an organ-donor has donated so many organs they die.
Ruth is a "carer," an organ-donor who has the job of assisting other donors in the process -- a sort of on-site social-worker/nurse who reads to them and counsels them through the process. Mulligan gives Ruth a depth and energy that allows her to become the movie's moral center as well as narrator. She struggles not with her fate as much as with how to accept the fate without losing everything in the process. Garfield's Tommy is a lost genial man-boy who is trying to return to a time when he could believe the lies he told himself. Knightly's Kathy is an exercise in cynicism and vulnerability simultaneously, and at the end of her life she's crippled and manic, also wanting to return to the youth the three of them shared in order to give all of them another chance to be innocent and alive and without pain.
The core of the film is loss and yet the drama is not about trying to escape heroically (as in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest or Girl, Interrupted), but how to take it all in stride and to force yourself to feel authentic feelings, to be strong enough to know everything is worth it even when it's not. That's the hardest discipline, and the most honest: to know how worthless you are and yet still maintain a life. In the quote above from Ishiguro's novel, Ruth says: "Maybe from as early as when you're five or six, there's been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: 'One day, maybe not so long from now, you'll get to know how it feels.'"
Never Let Me Go allows you to know how it feels to be Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, and by the end of it all you feel a sort of rapture from the experience. You are able to understand what it truly means to never let someone go, while actually watching them leave this earth one piece at a time.