2010 almost ended without me seeing Never Let Me Go, which is a bit strange because I'm a fan of both director Mark Romanek and the author of the source novel, Kazuo Ishiguro. Romanek's music videos, particularly the ones he did for Nine Inch Nails, are easily the best of the 1990s, and the 90s were of course the golden era of music videos. I've read two of Ishiguro's books, The Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills. I haven't read Never Let Me Go, but now I would rather like to as a number of the reviews I've read for the film have extremely high praise for the book--Michael Philips called the book "nearly flawless". He also says that that Mark Romanek's film is a good film based on a great book.
I loved the movie. I'm disappointed it apparently didn't do very good business, I guess mainly because it's what would be classified as a Science Fiction Chick Flick. Watching it I thought a way to describe it might be, "Blade Runner by way of Wuthering Heights." Both Blade Runner and Wuthering Heights convey the feeling of the desperate, horrific shortness of life.
Roger Ebert's review of Never Let Me Go is one of his best written of the last few years. When he says, "The characters may not know what they're revealing about themselves. They certainly don't know the whole truth of their existence," he describes exactly what I always loved about Ishiguro's writing, his uncanny ability to subtly and credibly express things about characters without the characters noticing. Of course, this makes his work excellent material for actors to show their skills, and this movie has an ideal cast in Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield.
I don't normally like Keira Knightley--I find her to be a bit one note, and her cheekbones disturb me, but both things were perfect for this movie. She seems hungry, all the time, and perhaps of the three most succinctly conveys the horror of the short life spans of the "Donors."
The story takes place in an alternate reality where humanity acquired the ability to completely clone human beings in 1952. A system was set up wherein criminals and poor people were cloned and raised in schools entirely for their organs. In the two Ishiguro books I've read, in one case the story was achieved through the experiences of a Japanese family acclimating to life in England and how buried personal issues manifest in the different environments, while in the other case it was a story of a man whose firmly set personality and mode of life are threatened by the gradual erosion of the culture to which he belongs, his advancing age, and his unavoidable humanity. There are elements of both here.
It's never explicitly stated in Never Let Me Go, but I loved how the fact that the cloning began in the 1950s led to the morality of the Donor system being a complete non-subject by the 90s. There is no resistance group, no Sci Fi action rebellion, as there might have been had this been a movie for the mainstream with studio pressure on its construction. One of the few voices in opposition to the Donor system says that her efforts to prove the humanity of the clones were in essence providing an answer to a question simply no one wanted to ask.
So these people live with the weight of knowing their lives are going to be cut short, of knowing they were cloned from the dregs of society (which sort of seems to work like a consciousness of Original Sin), and the impression that they may not even be human at all. It's no wonder that some of the Donors have no desire to "complete" (survive) their third donation.
None of this functions as a direct allegory for something in real life, for which I was grateful. Instead something more fundamental about human nature is explored. The fact that Tommy, Garfield's character, thinks that humanity in the clones is gauged by their artwork, and spends years drawing because of this, made me think of the life of the clones as a metaphor for the precarious existence of artists.
Ruth, Knightley's character, is someone who lives life desperately trying to cover all her bases without having any confidence in her own decisions, stealing Tommy away from Kathy, who loves him, because, by Kathy loving him, Ruth sees that loving Tommy is proper. She imitates television shows, she quickly answers yes when asked if she's experienced something, deathly afraid of people thinking she hasn't. By the time Ruth's life is over, rather than feeling any resentment for the trouble she caused the other protagonists, I just thought how awful it was for someone to die never having managed to grow out of their shadow.
Kathy, Carey Mulligan's character, meanwhile starts off more mature than everyone else, guesses sad truths much faster. She seems strong, but also seems aware of how little such strength counts for.
Roger Ebert says in his review, "One of the most dangerous concepts of human society is that children believe what they are told. Those who grow out of that become adults, a status not always achieved by their parents."
Maybe being an adult is best described as knowing, beyond any doubt, that life's too short.