Why Never Let Me Go will one day be regarded as the masterpiece it is!
Part 1 Hailsham
It was a bright, sunny day in early September, 2010. I was in the Thousand Oaks, CA area and picked up an LA Times and much to my amazement a film was already being offered for Guild members (I've been a WGAw member since '06) to see gratis, Never Let Me Go, Monday-Thursday. It was a film I was vaguely aware of, knew it was director Mark Romanek's sophomore effort, but not much else. I was aware the book was a well known, best seller, but again, not much else. And this may be a critical aspect to the full appreciation of this film. Do yourself a favor if you have not seen the film (there are, after all, quite a few of you sadly), nor read the book... Stop reading now! No, really. Stop... Reading... NOW and go watch the film!!! If you're one of those lucky few who have no prior knowledge, no pre-conceptions, as it should be by the way, you're in for a real cinematic treat.
The film unfurls with some very small super imposed title (SUPERTITLE as we scribblers call it) text stating: "The breakthrough in science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years." Hmmm, very clearly an alternate reality this film is setting up for us, the viewer. Now, this is a very simple, but hugely important point that's been made clear for us right away. This is a very technically advanced society our characters reside in. I will make an important point on this later to address some very superficial, and quite frankly knuckle headed, criticisms I'd read about the film. File this factoid away.
In the opening shot, we fade into a view of a silhouette of a women looking into an operating room. Then cut to a shot of her looking into the o.r. we see a young man being wheeled in. In voiceover, the women identifies herself as Kathy H, a very good 'carer', which is unclear exactly what that is, we can assume a sort of nurse like position given the setting. (She's played with understated brilliance by Carey Mulligan.) The young man is Tommy (also brilliantly portrayed by Andrew Garfield.) And another character is mentioned, Ruth, whom we haven't seen yet. Again, the beauty of knowing nothing about the material, we have no idea of the gravity of what we're seeing. The voiceover helps transition us back to the main characters childhood as we see what looks to be a boarding school, Hailsham 1978, we're told in the lower caption, (More on the year 1978 later.) Various shots of young children set the environment as the school headmistress, Charlotte Rampling who channels some the chilly austerity she conveyed as Paul Newman's girlfriend in The Verdict, addresses the assembly. In our first 'tell' or clue something is slightly amiss, she seems unusually perplexed that, "three burned cigarettes" had been found on the grounds and while the young charges may see others smoke, they are special. "Students of Hailsham must keep themselves well and healthy 'inside' and is of paramount importance," states Miss Emily (Rampling.) Well, fair enough, the kids shouldn't be smoking, but it's stated in an ominous and a bit unnecessarily alarming tone.
As this segment proceeds we're introduced to young Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth played by Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell respectively. They do fairly normal kid stuff like play soccer, go to art class, talk about boys (Ruth and Kathy) etc. A new teacher at Hailsham (Miss Lucy played by Sally Hawkins) observes the kids playing. A ball goes toward a fence, young Tommy, full of vigor like an overzealous puppy, suddenly stops. He dare not cross that boundary. Miss Lucy asks some of the girls why Tommy didn't get the ball. She's regaled by the youngsters of horrific tales of mutilation and starvation to those who ran afoul of the Hailsham grounds in the past. When Miss Lucy inquires as to the veracity of these tales, young Ruth responds matter of factly, "who'd make up stories as horrible as that?" Indeed, who would make up stories like WMD leading the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people? Who would make up stories about mortgage backed securities being great investments, sell them to pension funds, then short them at the same time? Who? We see very early on, that the people we go on this journey with are very sweet, decent, and incredibly humane. We get a few more strange 'tells' on the way: Kathy H acquires a small bruise on her cheek that elicits an inordinate amount of attention. (She got it trying to console poor Tommy, whom she's developed a crush on, all wound up on in knots after being the subject of repeated teasing. He inadvertently slaps her, but whole heartedly apologizes later.) Outsiders who come to the boarding school treat the children a bit strangely. In one instance a woman, simply known as 'Madame' from "the gallery" (where the youngsters get to have their art and drawings on display) acts as though she's ready to be mugged on the subway to 130th Street and Lennox Ave. (Harlem in case you didn't know) when she simply crosses the path of a few young Hailsham girls. (This scene may have been a bit much, by the way.) We see the kids have bracelets in which they have to scan as they leave the building to go and play. More on this later. A delivery man regards the cute little girls in a somewhat odd fashion. He's bringing a 'bumper crop' of goodies and knick knacks as a way to reward the children for good behavior and keep their spirits up. Hmm, opiate of the masses as Marx would've said: American Idol, football, Kate Perry anyone?
The film derives it's title from a song on a cassette tape Tommy gives to Kathy as she's seemingly uninterested in the 'bumper crop' offering. The two are starting to become close, and in a kind of adorable, but what turns out to be foreboding, scene Kathy cradles a pillow as she listens to the song. Probably imagining it's Tommy. Not long after she does so, she becomes vaguely aware of Ruth's presence in the hallway, vicariously peering in. The next scene, beginning with a wide exterior shot of Hailsham in the rain, a wilting flower in the window, we get the big reveal! Again, if you know nothing of the narrative please stop reading... No really, just stop, and go watch the film, then revisit us. We'll still be here, I promise. Anyhow, it is in the classroom that Miss Lucy gives her students, our three main characters, and by extension, us, the audience, the big reveal. In essence, these young folks have been 'created' (through genetic cloning as we deduce as the narrative continues) to donate their vital organs, some three or four donations, before they 'complete' (that hateful word that will be uttered many more times throughout the film) their young lives. They will never be actors, or teachers, or 'visit America'. "You must know who and what you are in order to lead good and productive lives", says Miss Lucy in a reluctant and emotional fashion. The kids are somewhat startled by this grim revelation, the camera hangs on Ruth a beat longer than the rest as she seems particularly upset by this. As Miss Lucy looks at the window to the rain, a gust of wind blows some papers from her desk to the floor. In another very kind and humane gesture, Tommy shakes off the shock of this reveal to pick up the scattered papers and place them back on the desk. What we discover throughout the film is these 'clones' if you will, considered sub-human by the 'normal' folks they serve, are more loving, caring, and tenderly human than their counterparts. Even though Ruth (played as an adult very skillfully by Keira Knightly) will go on to tests the bounds of this humanity through selfish, but understandable, behavior. Her mates Kathy and Tommy ultimately forgive her and still love her. And indeed Ruth makes amends to the two as best she can before she 'completes'.
We could stop here and analyze the wisdom of Miss Lucy leveling with children, tantamount to telling the kids there's no Santa Clause. It seems maybe a bit cruel and unnecessary, possibly it is best to let the illusion persist until the children grow up. as the headmistress seems to indicate as she lets the children know in the morning assembly Miss Lucy has been let go, no longer to teach there. "There are those who seek to impede progress," Miss Emily says. What I love about this film is it provides no easy answers. These people, all of them, human or clone, are doing the best they can. Much like life itself, we play the cards we're dealt as well as we can. Soon after this, Ruth starts to take a much more enthusiastic interest in Tommy. At various points Kathy sees the two holding hands, and later kissing. It should be said Tommy's character is not exactly a dim bulb, but rather a tad awkward, unsure of himself, unable to articulate his inner life if you will. Susceptible to manipulation as Ruth discovers. The puppy metaphor is a good one: boundless energy and heart. Ruth is probably the most fragile, sensitive, and 'weakest' of the trio. Kathy by far, the strongest, the leader, the Alpha. This dynamic between the trio will permeate the rest of the film.
Now's as good a time as any to discuss the director, Mark Romanek's, style and oeuvre. One need look no further than his first film, One Hour Photo, to conclude he's a Kubrick fan. Many of the slow zoom shots on Robin Williams reminiscent of Barry Lyndon and especially The Shining. While I thought the film was very well done, nothing in it indicated the utter brilliant, mastery of the medium Romanek puts on display here. Obviously, coming from the world of commercials and music videos, one would expect a well shot, well edited and designed, technically proficient film. However, this is the work of a fully mature artist. The sensibility, sensitivity, and aesthetic choices here are perfect across the board. Clearly, the subject matter would indicate a technically advanced, futuristic society, but rather than fall into the usual sci-fi visual cues Romanek opts for a radically different approach. This is an alternate reality, focus on reality. If it were set in the typical dystopian future, the viewer could just easily dismiss it as, "oh well, that's way in the future." Instead, this is here and now. This looks like a reality we know and understand, a world WE live in. This makes it all the more unsettling. As mentioned, every aspect of the film contains impeccable craftsman ship: script, performances, cinematography, production design, editing, and maybe most importantly the score. Rachel Portman's music maybe be the best film composition since Bernard Herrman's score for Vertigo. I'm usually resistant to a score that tyrannizes the narrative, guiding us through what to feel and think. Simply, most film scores of the last few decades. For instance, in a film like Michael Mann's The Insider, much of the score is overbearing, hampering the power of what's on screen. In another Mann masterpiece, Manhunter, some of the Shreikback songs impossibly date the film to the Eighties. Never Let Me Go is a completely different animal. It does what all great film scores do, it compliments the visual experience, enhances it, imbues itself in the film's DNA so you can't possibly imagine the film without it. And, that's exactly what we have here.
Maybe another way in which Romanek channels Stanley Kubrick. After all, who can imagine 2001's space scenes without Strauss' "Blue Danube" or A Clockwork Orange without "Singin' in the Rain." While there are no overt nods to Kubrick here, certain scenes evoke some of his work. In one scene, when Kathy spies Tommy and Ruth having a first kiss, it reminds one of Ryan O'Neill and one of his conquests in Barry Lyndon. Another, a transitional scene where Kathy is packing some of her belongings into a little suitcase: her cassette tape from Tommy, a little Unicorn-like plaything from Ruth. (A nod to Blade Runner?) In voiceover, she explains they've grown up and are moving out of Hailsham. We see her hand fondling the various trinkets, then cut to a wider shot of Kathy H. as a young woman, not unlike the transition from a large bone used as a weapon to a satellite orbiting space in 2001. This brings us to the next sequence, entitled The Cottages...