Tackling the issue of biomedical ethics in film is generally something left for camp films or overt melodrama. There’s always some sort of major, drastic choice overdone and overwrought. The film that nearly got it down was The Island, an interesting science-fiction piece that turned into a dumb action film. In that film clones were raised as human guinea pigs, used for spare parts, and presented a handful of discussion points before realizing you can’t spend $150 million on an ethical drama on cloning.
At some point stuff has to be blown up in dramatic fashion when you spend that kind of money.
The inherent difficulties in the subject material (creating a clone and letting it live until the time is right to harvest them like an auto mechanic in a scrap yard) calls for a more subtle approach than what one imagines Michael Bay could provide. Enter Mark Romanek of One Hour Photo fame and a radically different approach than Bay’s failed blockbuster, an adaptation of the highly regarded book Never Let Me Go.
With a significantly smaller budget to accommodate a film oriented on the inherent inequities of this setup, this is a much more compact and significantly better. Based off the novel by Kazuo Ishigoro, the film follows three children to adulthood knowing that their bodies are eventually going to be used as spare parts in a world where the average life expectancy is significantly longer than the real one.
Ruth (Keira Knightley), Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) know their destinies from childhood. They are human cattle, destined to have their organs harvested for use in extending the lives of those they’ve been cloned from. Growing up in a boarding school, and then sent to a series of residences until they’re ready to have their series “donations,” we follow them as they all have a different viewpoint towards their predicament. Tommy is determined to find a way to delay it, Kathy trying to find a way to make peace with it and Ruth seemingly rebelling against it. The film follows the three as they live their lives, trying to come to term with their destiny as nothing more than a means to an end.
This is a film that rests on the shoulders of these three and delivers mainly because of them. Always picked as amongst Hollywood’s young burgeoning talent, the trio of leads in this film are required to do a lot but with not much to work with in terms of characters. Ruth, Kathy and Tommy are not well developed as they are more shells of characters than actual characters; it’s something to be said about the cast that their eventual destiny still leaves us with a sense of heartbreak. It is their destiny but after all is said and done there isn’t much given out in terms of character but it’s not a weakness of the film, oddly enough. Romanek has designed his film to not give us much because these aren’t really people in terms of how the film’s society handles them. They are glorified cattle, kept healthy to eventually be harvested for the sake of others, and in their handling of it all we see them as more than that.
It’s a calculated decision to keep their characters shallow and let it become more of an actor’s showcase as opposed to a story showcase. Considering the level of talent Romanek has it’s a brilliant decision because Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield deliver in spectacular ways. And while the first two delivering was to be expected, it’s Andrew Garfield’s performance that serves as his coming out party as an actor. It’s just that people recognized more for the more popular film (The Social Network) he did than in this one.
He’d previously been dynamic in Boy A and Lions for Lambs, if unrecognized, and 2010 served as him establishing that he might be the next great British actor. After The Social Network left him being considered an Oscar candidate, and The Amazing Spider-Man poised to turn him into a star, Never Let Me Go might’ve been the better performance because it’s more subtle. Tommy has an inherent sadness in him that the other characters don’t; seeing a man try to fight his own fate and losing is hard but Garfield gives him something deep and powerful that we connect with.
Never Let Me Go‘s inherent problem is that the subject material is hard to watch. There’s an inherent humanity stripped out of this that makes you yearn to hug something living immediately after it’s over. It’s a difficult film to watch, especially its finale. But there’s some power to it and ultimately it lends to a good but not brilliant film.
Presented in a widescreen format with a digital surround, this is a beautiful transfer. Never Let Me Go is filled with arresting visuals and brilliant scoring that come through spectacularly on the format.
The Secrets of Never Let Me Go is a retrospective piece on how the film came together. When the book came out a handful of the principals became fans, like Carey Mulligan who wanted to play Kathy since she read the novel and figured she would have to wait some time before she was age appropriate, and as such it seemed everything came together almost as if destined to. The piece, which does stray into EPK territory on occasion, does give a compelling behind the scenes look at the film. There are some great insights, like Ishigoro providing context to how the next generation of British actors gave life to his characters and the subtle differences in acting styles from previous generations.
Director Mark Romanek’s On-Set Photography is a series of still photographs taken by the director on set in black and white. Tommy’s Art is similar, using the same music behind Tommy’s drawings in the film. The National Donor Programme & Hailsham Campaign Graphics is nearly the same, scoring pictures of the various posters for the film’s background history.
Never Let Me Go had a hard time connecting with audiences in theatres because of its subject material but on DVD and Blu-ray it might have a stronger case. If anything it should be viewed on home televisions because this is a hard film to watch from an emotional perspective; it might be easier to handle for some from the comfort of their home than in a theatre.
20th Century Fox presents Never Let Me Go. Directed by Mark Romanek. Starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield. Written by Alex Garland based off the novel “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishigoro. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated R. Released on Blu-ray and DVD: February 8, 2011.
Tags: Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go