Thursday, February 14, 2013

Never Let Me Go Part 3 Completion

This final segment of the film begins with Kathy explaining, and going through the actual motions, of being a 'carer'. We see she has own little apartment, as Mulligan's Kathy leaves her abode she locks the door and actually gives it a small tug to make sure it's locked. That would seem too minute a detail to bring up, but in fact, this is the kind of thing that separates a great from an ordinary actor. These are the kind of minute details that make one 'in the moment.' Kathy goes about her day which entails comforting, seeing to the needs of, 'caring', for those in the donation process. Many times she has to travel out of town, in the particular case we see her care for a donor who just gave an eye. (We must assume as she's sitting in a hospital bed wearing an patch, and waiting to make yet another donation.) Kathy has just gone to great lengths to get the poor young women some chocolate cookies. What we can clearly see is that this process of donation is a de-humanizing, soulless, humiliating process something akin to slavery if you. Speaking of dehumanizing, we can easily deduce that society at large looks at these genetically created donors as sub- human. As mentioned prior, unlike say a film like A.I. there's no seperation from us and the donor, we see the world through their eyes. Or, in a film like Blade Runner, also set in a dystopian future, the 'skin jobs' are very much 'other' or outside of society. Even in the director's cut it's left very vague as the origin of Harrison Ford's Dekard, the hunter of these rogue genetic slaves. In any case, in that film we do not see the clones as human. However, like Blade Runner the genetic clones in Never Let Me Go are more humane than their human counterparts.

As we soon learn, one of the drawbacks of Kathy's job is when her donors 'complete' early. She has a very good track record in this area, but clearly she becomes somewhat attached to her 'carees' if you will. Her donor never got to sample the cookies she got as she 'completed' early. While filling out requisite paperwork for the death (enough with that fucking word complete, maybe murder is more apt) of her donor. She sees a photo of Ruth on a computer screen, she asks the attending nurse about Ruth and discovers she's not doing well at all. Says the nurse, "I think she wants to complete, and when they want to, they usually do..." Kathy goes to Ruth's room to pay her a visit, the room is empty, then Ruth comes out of the bathroom, stands frozen in surprise to see Kathy there. They stroll down the hospital corridor, Ruth needing a walker, probably missing a kidney. They make small talk as Kathy lets her know she plans to stay overnight with her. (Kathy tells a white lie. Earlier, when she was filling out paperwork, the nurse asks her if she has a long drive and needs to stay overnight, plenty of beds are available. She declines until she notices Ruth's picture. She doesn't want Ruth to feel she's being inconvenienced by staying. It's a small gesture, a real moment. Unlike most reel moments...)

The next morning, as Kathy feeds Ruth an orange, Ruth notes that she can see Kathy's a good carer. Ruth suggests maybe they go on a trip... and call on Tommy. This obviously gets Kathy's attention. Ruth says she's kept tabs on them both over the years and that Tommy has done a few donations but is doing quite well. They go off on their journey to see Tommy at another donor center. When their car pulls up, Tommy is sitting on the steps waiting for them. He looks strong, a crew cut, vibrant, and older. Garfield is able to convey a more adult physicality. He sees Kathy first, runs to her, and they warmly embrace. Ruth, still in the car, is a bit of an afterthought. He goes to greet her as well. They then drive off together to go to the sea shore, there's an abandoned boat that Tommy runs to when they get to their destination. This is quite an undertaking as we learn in a later scene, he's had one of his lungs removed, the evidence a nasty scar across the side of his ribcage. Later, they gather together looking out into the ocean, and Ruth makes amends for her selfish behavior. She knew Tommy and Kathy were the real couple, but was afraid she'd be alone, unable to find real love, which is indeed what happens anyway. It's here she brings up the deferral rumor again, only this time she's done some homework. She even finds the address of 'Madame', the lady whom visited Hailsham and accepted the students work into the gallery. All Tommy and Kathy have to do is visit her and show they're really in love. Later that evening, Kathy reads to Tommy. "From Basra we sailed...", a passage from The Arabian Nights, how apropos as Tommy is the ultimate adventurer. It's here that Tommy and Kathy finally consummate their love for each other in yet another achingly beautiful scene. Rachel Portman's music the perfect compliment for one of the greatest love scenes in modern film. What? One of the greatest love scenes in modern film? Really? YES!!! Say I. It's simple, because it's not one of the phoney, bullshit, romantic contrivances in which our star crossed lovers just can't get together. Because of the brilliant script by Alex Garland, the direction, the performances, it feels real, not reel. We feel their passion, we feel their love, they've earned it! In so many films it's not earned at all.
 Soon after Tommy and Kathy make plans to visit Madame. Tommy, while he didn't submit anything to the gallery as a youngster, has more than made up for it as an adult, compiling a litany of drawings and paintings over time. Seeing as Kathy got plenty of things in the gallery, Tommy will show his work to Madame and they'll be able to see into their souls and know they're in love. Kathy even goes as far as to scout out the address and check on it's veracity, indeed Ruth's information checks out. Kathy lets Ruth know they're going to go for the deferral. Ruth seems happy for them, but realizes her worst nightmare will soon come true, she will die alone. Keira Knightley plays this scene brilliantly, without much dialogue she's able to convey what Ruth is feeling, and even throws a curve of sorts. She does a subtle look away that for a moment, conveyed to this viewer, that maybe, just maybe she knows the idea of deferrals is bullocks so to speak. It may be a stretch, but this is what great acting does. Al Pacino in Scarface, not a performance or film known for subtlety, does an amazing thing just with his eyes. In a scene after he's lead his posse on their first job for Robert Loggia's Frank Lopez, he even lost a friend in the infamous chainsaw scene. They all go out to a club, and Frank celebrates the addition of his new henchman by ordering a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne. They all have a glass and Lopez asks Pacino's Tony Montana, "Isn't this great stuff?" Pacino responds yes, but his eyes convey something entirely different. His eyes say he has no clue if it's good or not because he's a simple peasant. He wouldn't know good champagne from a can of coke. This is great acting! Not what your mouth is saying, but your body, your face. Being in the moment. These are the kind of performances Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightly have given us. And in indeed in the next shot we see Ruth give her last donation, it's cold, sterile, ugly, she simply flat lines with little fanfare.
Tommy and Kathy go to see Madame, who's busy doing some gardening, her back to the couple. Kathy gently calls out to her and explains that they just want to talk, Tommy indicates he has some art work he wants to show her. We get the feeling Madame knows why their here, and invites them into her flat. She lives in a series of fairly nondescript row house flats. Tommy gets to the point, he and Kathy are in love and it's verifiable. Verifiable Madame repeats, she has a somewhat sad, subdued tone. While the couple were looking over the living room as they entered, Tommy even sees a painting of Hailsham, just as he remembers it. (What we realize as we ponder it, is it was probably left by another couple who also had 'verifiable' love.) Madame excused herself and evidently made a phone call. As the three talk, Madame simply says, "she never knows what to do?" It's then that Miss Emily, the headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling enters, enters in a wheelchair. (It just occurred to me, that in a nod to her disdain for the existing system she's probably refused medical aid from 'donors; after all in this scientifically advanced society why would she be in a wheelchair?) She'll take it from here. She warmly recognizes the two immediately and recounts their personality traits like a proud school marm. The simple fact is, they were asking a question no one else was asking or cared about. If asked to go back to the dark ages of lung and breast cancer or auto neuron disease (whatever that is?) society at large would simply say no. They had the gallery not to see what was in their souls but if they had souls at all? Almost before Miss Emily speaks Kathy knows it's bad news. Bottom line: there are no deferrals and there never had been. It's moment reminiscent of GoodFellas, after Tommy D (Joe Pesci, and by the way Garfield's character is referred to as Tommy D.) has been shot in the back of the head at the moment he was to be 'made', it's dismissed simply as 'we had a problem, we tried to do all we could but he's gone... ya know he's gone. That's that and there's nothing we could do about it." DeNiro's Jimmy Conway (Jimmy 'the Gent' Burke in reality) can not articulate his rage in any other way but to bash the phone booth to smithereens. Much like Tommy's primal scream of rage at the insanity of it all, as we see in a scene later.

Tommy is shell shocked by it all. Souls??? To see if we had souls? Who are you people? Of course we have fucking souls!!! None of this stated explicitly in dialogue, that acting thing again, but it's what he's thinking and feeling. How can this society be so barbaric? It calls back to a young Ruth asking "Who's make up stories as horrible as that?" As the two drive back, Tommy needs to get out of the car. He walks ahead and screams... It bookends the earlier scene, when as kids Tommy wasn't picked to be on a team, and Kathy tried to comfort him, he inadvertently slapped her. This time he embraces Kathy's comfort. Then we come back to the opening scene, which brings with it a whole new gravity. It's Tommy's third donation, he's being wheeled in. Kathy looks on and smiles, another small, almost imperceptible nod that says I'm with you. He smiles and nods back, this time we get the feeling this will be his last donation. His will to live drained from him. There's no typical hand on the glass, no grand gesture, it's very small but very powerful, poignant. The anesthesia starts to work and Tommy fades out. In a last glaring insult, one of the Doctors seems to violently jerk his head up, putting oxygen to his mouth, almost as if he were cattle. The last scene is Kathy staring at an empty field, where Hailshan used to be, she can almost see young Tommy coming to her. In voiceover she tells us she lost Tommy only a few weeks ago, and in only a months time she will begin to donate herself. She reminds herself she was grateful to have any time with him at all. She wonders how differently their lives as donors have been from the lives of those they save. Probably no one feels they've had enough time, everyone completes. The last shot is of a two errant pieces of plastic stuck to barbed wire fence, they flutter in the wind, representational of Tommy and Kathy perhaps. There's another shot in this sequence, a wide shot looking into the empty field, she's flanked by a large tree. The real Tree of Life I thought as I watched. It occurred to me that while the two films aren't all that similar there are themes that overlap. It seems to me Romanek was much more successful  in conveying the thematic content of his film than Malick. We fade to the credits...

And, I left the theater, it was still daylight. Like Kathy I wasn't sure what to make of what I'd just seen. I knew it was a profound and great film but I needed time to fully digest or grok it if you will. I saw the film again with my girlfriend in the theater and yet again multiple times on DVD. And the film never shrank like so many do, rather the opposite. I haven't mentioned the book by Kazuo Ishiguro as I've treated this strictly as a cinematic experience. Nor, have I read the book, but I will. Clearly, this book and film shares similar themes with his other book also turned into a film, Remains of the Day. Both deal with the world of 'them' serving 'us' and the ramifications of that inequity. Never Let Me Go calls into question everything from where we get our food, from animals to the migrant workers who pick our vegetables, to the people who cook and clean for us, all those unseen people who make our life convenient. This film just ups the ante by introducing the concept of organ donors and elects to focus on them to the exclusion of the other 'real world'. This is very important to understand. One of the constant, and rather mindless, criticisms of this film was the 'ol why don't they just run away' routine. Simply put, if this society is technologically advanced enough to have this donor program it would stand to reason they would be adept at using microchip or DNA tracking ability. At various times we see the donors check in with their bracelets, we can assume they have an ability to easily track the whereabouts of these valuable donors. In addition, we have fairly recent history to show us the answer to this silly critique. No rational, intelligent people apply this 'run away' trope to European Jews ethnically cleansed in the Holocaust. Nor Bosnia, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Indonesia, the Kulaks in the Soviet Union and ad infinitum. Just read a few history books and one will discover all the sociological, historical, and behavioral reasons these things happen that I don't have time to elucidate here.

As to why exactly this film didn't find the audience it so richly deserved, it's very difficult to say. There are precedents though. The film that most quickly comes to mind is Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. It landed with a resounding thud when it came out, but in decades since has inched itself into the number one greatest film ever made just nudging out Citizen Kane in the most recent comprehensive critics poll. What probably plagued Vertigo is probably at work here as well. Compared to his prior thrillers like: Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew too Much, Vertigo wasn't the same kind of plot driven thriller. It plays more like a slow burn psychological study dissecting the male psyche a la Bergman's Hour of the Wolf or Bresson's Diary of A Country Priest hidden in the guise of a Hitchcock thriller. After all, two thirds into the film is the 'reveal', Vertigo is much more than that however. It just took that long for audiences to catch up with the subtlty and brilliance of the film. A similar dynamic is at work with Never Let Me Go, people seem to be concerned with petty plot points that really aren't at all pertinent to what this film is all about.

I do believe we are looking at future Vertigo in Never Let Me Go. In my mind, it's easily one of the best films I've seen in the last few decades. It is my sincerest hope that those serious about Cinema will give this film a second look, and just possibly this piece will contribute a modicum of reconsideration. Just a ripple out in the vast ocean, but sometimes that's how the most powerful movements begin: from the heart! It's a film that's challenging, difficult, emotionally resonant. It makes us ask questions about our very existence, our very humanity. Isn't that what great art is all about?


  1. Joseph, you have done a great, perceptive job here. Thanks. Chris R

    1. Thank you for taking the time to give it a read...