Never Let Me Go
An appreciation of the Mark Romanek film adapted from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is, superficially, a simple film, pretty to look at but with little substance. This impression is deceptive however. An intensely English film made on a ridiculously small budget compared with the expensive and glossy products Hollywood is turning out, it is a story about a tragic love triangle between three doomed individuals. Not much appears to be happening as one would expect in a film set in an exclusive private school. The characters go through the motions of growing up, concerned with the same trivialities as characters in a 1930s novel for adolescent readers might. Their apparent detachment is typical of young people who have led a cocooned existence.
In reality, Never Let Me Go the muted story of submission to authority, adapted by Alex Garland from the 2005 novel is a far more complex film than first impressions might suggest. Once we are aware of the the background scenario, a dystopian society ruled over by a remote and disengaged elite whose assurance of their superiority has led to a belief they are entitled to treat people who are not members of their caste as animals, the reason why the leading trio are leading their sheltered and protected lives and why they are still at school though clearly past school age is simultaneously fascinating and frightening. And sorry folks but there are spoilers ahead because this is not a film review but an article about one of the most important social issues we face, an issue with implications far beyond the raging arguments about climate change, food shortages and economic stability.
Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, young people who have grown up incarcerated in Hailsham, a strange, elite boarding school in the 1970s and as adults become involved in a love triangle made more painful by the consciousness of how short their lives are to be. Ruth is sexy and smart, Tommy is vulnerable and awkward and Kathy — played by Mulligan with an almost unvarying expression of caring concern — is more mature than the others
The trio at the heart of the story are donors - neither givers to charitable or political causes nor those who volunteer to donate organs after their demise, but human clones who are bred to provide replacement organs for real humans. And, we learn, those organs will be removed while the donors are still alive -organ by organ until the donor can no longer survive even on a life support system. Their lives are laid out for them, like factory farmed beasts they are bred and raised to be butchered. Shockingly, nauseatingly, the donors know they will die on a surgical table as their vital organs are taken to preserve the lives of those deemed to be of greater worth.
From one perspective the film is about what it is to be human. The donors - bred to be internally cannibalised - are in every way human. They have human emotions, they feel love, anger, fear, frustration and hope. They form friendships, conspire, betray each other, they know hope and despair are. They are thinking, creative creatures. They are like us. They are of us. The only way these beautiful, doomed young people differ from other humans only in that they were bred to be spare parts and then conditioned to accept their pre ordained fate? They have no free will, they cannot change their destiny. Change the angle we view the film from slightly however and the film becomes more than just a science fantasy about the medical benefits that might be derived from research into cloneing or IVF technology, more than just the question of whether the donors are human.
Since the film also posits the implicit question of "how human is a society that breeds fellow humans to slowly kill them in a cold, clinical and bureaucratic way? it forces us to consider they direction in which scientific research is heading. It also reminds us that when our questioning of what the science-is-god freaks are getting up to, we must not be intimidated by the fascistic bullying of science academy evangelicals who tell us nobody except a trained scientist can understand science, we must not be intimidated. We must call their bluff as they try to blind us with the jargon of their trade. We must force answers from them.
What the science cult (because they are a cult) fear most is that people who are not scientists, who have not been indoctrinated with the orthodoxy inculcated by university faculties can understand science. What is more we can often understand the broader implications of scientific research far better than the scientists themselves. These people who, in a different way to the characters in the film lead a cocooned existence are massive on book leaning but almost devoid of the moderating force, life experience. Being by nature control freaks they are obsessed with controlling nature itself, look how frenetically they pursue the goal of extending the human life span even though the rapid increase in longevity during the twentieth century now distorts the balance of society and threatens to plunge those societies into chaos
This then is the dichotomy of Never Let Me Go. The film is in part a tragic romance, in part a dystopian fantasy. Because of this and because it alludes to issues so important the political and academic institutions will go to great lengths to prevent open discussion of them Never Let Me Go is an unlikely but also compelling horror movie. The horror here is not the schlock horror of zombie movies nor even the menace of the unseen. It is not blatant, , werewolves versus vampires; rather, horror hangs in the atmosphere in the stillness of the scenes, the detachment of the characters. The film is about people born to die, born without hope, and while one character observes that while every human completes (the film's term for dying), people like the inmates of the "school" are not just born to die, they are born to be killed and their organs systematically harvested.
Beyond that there are constant hints at just how inhumane society has become. Hailsham - the name of the school, one of many that "educates" donors - is perceived by one of its leading staff members as a last bastion of ethical behaviour towards its charges. Hailsham cares about whether they are human or not. Despite of asking these questions the school and its staff groom the children not to question; to be compliant, to never question authority to believe that in the words of Dr. Pangloss (Voltaire's fictional crackpot philosopher) "all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.".
Despite its claims to be a caring, politically correct organisation Hailsham complicity in the systematic slaughter of numerous people in society and in this it resembles those scientists who claim their work is justified although no possible "greater good", only an infinite arrogance, a God complex, can be discerned in their attempts to create new life forms, breed human / animal hybrids or produce all meat from cloned creatures and render natural breeding obsolete. And they never see the risks of course because scientists never consider adverse consequences.
At the end of the film it is suggested that Hailsham has closed and that the newer schools for clones are really just battery farms. Humans clones as battery hens, bred by a society that would rather ignore them until it needs their organs. And clones so indoctrinated and convinced there is no alternative to the pre - ordained fate that they do not run and do not flee; the closest they come to such an aspiration is wanting to defer their first donation because they have found love. Human battery animals; is an inevitable progression and wholly believable given the track record of scientists, the amoral desire to go further and further, completely oblivious of where lines should be drawn. Even the euphemistic words for the process are haunting; "donations" for the harvesting of organs, "completion" for what is effectively murder at the hands of the National Donor Programme. This is a dystopian future, and we see it through eyes of the dystopia's victims. Oops, what have I just said.
What is most intriguing about Never Let Me Go is the way that the medical police state is imagined to be so entrenched, so invisibly embedded in a pastiche of the repressed, emotionally consitpated, fantasy-England that there is are no splashes of horror when the secret is revealed. Everyone is very English about it: phlegmatic, accepting, rather melancholy but not dispirited. The approach is a shrewd, offering a real insight into how people would actually be — or, indeed, how they actually are in the famine afflicted areas of Africa or the war afflicted areas of Afghanistan and Libya.
The film withholds the explicit fear and passion that another kind of treatment might have aimed for, but it works as a coherent, understated parable of mortality. The inmates of Hailsham become obsessed with the paintings that their art teacher periodically accepts for her "gallery", convinced that some can stave off their fate by proving to the authorities, through their paintings, that they are higher, nobler souls capable of passion. This is a very Larkinesque idea about perhaps surviving through love and art, and the movie functions as a parable of how, in this real, non-sci-fi world of ours, we go through our lives stoically declining to consider the chilling mystery of our own future deaths and the increasing likelyhood that those deaths will be pre - planed by the state. The film withholds the explicit fear and passion that another kind of treatment might have aimed for, but it works as a cogent, subdued parable of mortality
Never Let Me Go is touching, sinister and thought-provoking in equal measure and, as such, is well worth watching.
Never Let Me Go
Production year: 2010: UK Cert (UK): 12A Runtime: 103 mins Director: Mark Romanek Cast: Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling, Keira Knightley, Sally Hawkins More on this filmMark Romanek directs, and the movie stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield