Film Review: Never Let Me Go

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(Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek, UK, 2011, 104 minutes)

It is hard to fully evaluate a film, when you’ve read the book. Even if crucial parts are missed out, your brain automatically fills them in for you, and as long as it all looks right, you’re happy. However, if you find yourself on leaving the cinema explaining a lot of ‘stuff that happened in the book’ to your companion who hasn’t read it, then it makes you start to think a little more critically on what you’ve just witnessed.

And so, Never Let Me Go, a film about lost love, weird boarding school education and human cloning. Central to the story is Kathy H, and her love for childhood friend Tommy, realised too late to be truly fulfilled. It is ultimately a film about life, and the pain of missed opportunities, with the cloning and organ donation a plot device. The three adult leads, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, are excellent (once you get over the fact that they look like they’ve stepped out of a tasteful knitwear catalogue), and held the tension of the love-triangle well. Considering that the film felt quite short, at 104 minutes, I only noticed a few plot changes, but unfortunately quite a lot of the detail of Ruth and Kathy’s childhood friendship is cut. As a result, the importance of their relationship does not translate on to the screen, and the hold Ruth has over Kathy, one of the most interesting aspects of the story, is never fully explained. Latterly, at the cottages, Ruth comes across as more of a bitch than a complex, emotionally damaged teenage girl. I would happily have given another 30 minutes of my life to that cinema seat if they had been spent on developing the years at Hailsham more fully, a move that would have strengthened the power of those later scenes, which depend entirely on the bond between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth.

This is a film played out on long, windswept beaches and hospital wards. There is a stark contrast between the simple beauty of the donor’s rural life at the cottages and the understated horror of the recovery centres. The washed out, muted tones of the film are perfect, as are the way the characters dressed, and every tiny detail of their surroundings. Hailsham and the Cottages looked exactly as I imagined them. At times I found myself looking around the dark cinema fearfully, afraid that Mark Romanek might be in my head, taking notes. As a film, Never Let Me Go is by necessity less vague than the novel about what is involved in donations, and seeing one of Kathy’s patients lying weakly in bed with a plaster over her eye, and the rough, disrespectful way the surgeons treat the donors on the operating table, adds a new dimension of horror to the story. Romanek pushes this further, taking Ruth’s death from the comfort of the recovery room onto the operating table.

Sometimes, however, perfection doesn’t feel quite right. In the novel, Kathy’s detached, distant tone can be attributed to the fact that she is reviewing her own memories, looking back on what happened years before. She is able to calmly assess the way she behaved, and the reader has to make allowances for the unreliability of her narration. This creates a duality that is central to the novel, Kathy inhabits her past, but she is also distant from it, which has not been captured, and the powerful idea of the strange, transient nature of memory has been diluted. The viewer watches Kathy live first-hand, but Mulligan plays her with the quality of an observer, and never seems fully involved in her own story. Alex Garland’s screenplay, while technically a perfect, faithful visual reproduction of the novel, could have been so much more adventurous, and could have shown us the discrepancies between the story the impassive narrator is telling, and what Kathy must really have been feeling at the time. There is something about the novel that has not translated well onto the screen, and it feels too reserved, too resigned. There has been much discussion over why Never Let Me Go has been snubbed by the Oscars, and on viewing, it is clear why. Sometimes the best books make indifferent films, but if you’ve read the novel, you will cry at the end.

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