Resist the romance, revisit the politics: A review of “Never Let Me Go”

Never Let Me Go is the new film by Mark Romanek based on Kazuo Ishiguo’s 2005 novel. It has been described as a mystery and a sci fi thriller. As someone who found the film only marginally mysterious and distinctly unthrilling, I have no qualms whatsoever about discussing openly what others seek to preserve as the secrets of the plot. So with the warning that anyone averse to plot spoilers should cease reading immediately, and certainly before the next colon: this is a film about organ donation. As I have no way of judging the film’s success or otherwise as an adaptation or interpretation of Ishiguro’s novel, and no interest in documenting in detail why I think it is one of the least convincing, and certainly least compelling, love stories in contemporary cinema, I have no option in this review but to get to the heart of the matter.

The film opens with the following statement: “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.” No further details are given. Our first image is of Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) watching through glass as the man she cares for (Andrew Garfield) goes under the surgical knife. Kathy’s voice-over then takes us back to the halcyon days of a childhood spent with Ruth and Tommy at a country boarding school. The first of the film’s three acts is set in the subtly sinister world of Halisham. Romance blossoms between eleven-year old Kathy and Tommy, but a jealous Ruth intervenes, choosing the somewhat hapless Tommy as her beau. We then follow our protagonists to ‘The Cottages’ half-way house where their only occupation appears to be to await their futures amidst the growing strains of a rather muted love triangle. The final act reunites the estranged Kathy, Tommy and Ruth [Keira Knightley] – Kathy, in the peak of health, is a ‘carer’; Ruth and Tommy are in separate hospitals following their second and third ‘donations’. When Ruth confesses that she knew all along Kathy and Tommy were destined to be together, she spurs Kathy and Tommy to seek a ‘deferral’. The film ends by affirming that endings cannot be deferred.

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy have, it emerges, been especially bred and brought up to make what can only be euphemistically called ‘donations’ of their organs. They have no way of avoiding their fate, nor do they ultimately desire to. The best that Tommy and Kathy hope for is to defer the donations by a few years by proving their true love for each other; however, this, for reasons unclear, proves impossible.

Despite announcing jumps in time from the 1970s to the 1980s and mid 1990s, the film never seeks to venture beyond the autumnal glow of nostalgia for a strangely sexless, middle-aged 1970s. The bleached lighting, dowdy costuming, music and mise en scène all whisper of old age; our protagonists, throughout, are leached of vitality, not so much Stepford-wives-absent as simply emotionally flaccid even when supposedly most aroused. Judging by the tears shed by my fellow-cinema goers I may be in a distinct minority in this assessment. Perhaps what struck me as the vacant, disingenuous and essentially eerie nature of the characters other saw as a subtle, sophisticated and extremely moving portrait of love and loss. While privately pondering whether this makes me a cold-hearted misanthrope, I should like here to explain, as I see them, the dangers inherent in surrendering to the film’s seductions.

First, the most obvious frustration with Never Let Me Go: namely, that the science completely fails to make sense. Why would society invest so much in the educational and psychosocial development of children bred simply for their organs? Why wait until children are in their early-30s to require their donations, and what possible reason could there be for factoring in time for care and recovery between donations rather than doing it in one fell swoop? Why allow donors-to-be the autonomy to live and love as they choose, when psychological and physical injury would surely jeopardise the investment? And, above all, why, with the mechanism of control or coercion never revealed, do Kathy, Tommy and Ruth so readily accept their fates?

Kathy and Tommy seeking a deferral

The film’s love story but also its entire ambience seem calculated to distract us from these questions. Where we are supposed to feel acutely the poignancy of a future-that-never-could-have-been, I felt instead the claustrophobia of a present that couldn’t reach past pop psychology. Never Let Me Go is evacuated of ‘the social’ and hence evacuated of politics – there is no political consciousness, no exploration of the ethics of this existence, no insights at all into the society that engineered these lives and so this situation in order to save itself from the scourge of disease.

Never Let Me Go clearly intends us to come away feeling sad; to empathise with Kathy as she mourns for her lost love(s) and anticipates her own death. But it is precisely the idea that death-by-compulsory-donation is an all-too-human predicament that is so intensely disturbing. The film lulls us in to a world upon which it offers no critical vantage point, directing our attention towards the emotional microcosms which shield us from confronting the very real and very frightening issues of the possibilities medical technologies present. Whereas the explicit revelations in The Island propel that film’s specially-bred protagonists into a predictable and so largely unsatisfying thriller, Never Let Me Go threatens to suffocate the viewer in the beige, nostalgic cotton-wool of childhood innocence. Although it could perhaps be countered that this might, in fact, be a deliberate tactic on the part of the filmmaker, such wishful thinking would prove, in my view, wholly unsatisfying. There is a story to tell about the current and future banalities, and not the melodramas, of cloning and organ donation, just as there are aesthetic and narrative explorations of the melancholic structures of future-less experience still to be undertaken. But above all there will be a historical, social, political, ideological and technological context to both the story and its telling, and it is this no film should simply will away.

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