DVD Review: Never Let Me Go

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Short for time

Interpretation is what it all comes down to; whether that’s scriptwriter Alex Garland analysing the book, or us as the audience coming to our own conclusions about both the novel and adaptation of Never Let Me Go (2010). I came away from the film with a lot of unanswered questions that even the book could not provide an explanation for. But it all came down to one simple fact, director Mark Romanek was limited on how much time he had to compress all those pages into the film, just as humans are so restricted to how long they live this life. Never Let Me Go contains some very intense and complex issues in respect of the human being, humanity itself and in one particular case, giving into death when you have no other choice.

The London Girly Book Club and Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment hosted a highly enjoyable celebration of the release of Never Let Me Go on DVD and Blu-Ray. As guests we were provided with a drinks reception – a whole room of chatting girls has never been more intimidating – and half an hour later we were sat in a beautiful screening room to watch the film. It was such a diverse group of people; some were more interested in the novel, and I, having read the novel but not seen the film, was very intrigued by how the book club would scrutinize it. Some of the girls were confused when we had the post screening discussion, and said that they didn’t understand the narrative until Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), one of the teachers or “guardians” at the Hailsham boarding school, literally confessed to the children that they were made for one purpose. Their role is to donate as many organs as they can and to lead unusually short lives, consequently helping the human race to live beyond one hundred years of age.

The guardians at the school tell the children they were “special”, and towards the end of the film they’re also called “poor creatures”, giving the impression they have been isolated from the outside world. In the featurette on the DVD extras, The Secret of Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek says he was scared to make the novel into a film, but that he liked the way there was not a single scene similar to scenes he’d watched in other films. “It was a very tense and quiet set” he said, and Carey Mulligan added that “To tell a story about the human soul is enormous and rich”.

From the discussion, the girls suggested that the film had forgotten a lot of detail from the book, and that the characters of Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) never seem genuinely besotted by the outside world once they reach it. The film did not address the idea of escaping Hailsham either, and the film even added the metal bracelets on their wrists, perhaps to emphasise how controlled they were even as they grew up. The author Kazuo Ishiguro also stars in the featurette, and in relation to escaping Hailsham, a matter he has been questioned on many times, says that they simply don’t want to escape as there is nowhere to run away to, and that we as humans need to make the most of what we have. The girls agreed that there were a lot of sci-fi type questions that weren’t addressed; the audience never witnesses the production of the clones, and the problem of whether the supply of clones and organs is limited is never considered.

Keira Knightley’s performance as Ruth is haunting. Even from their young age she dominates Kathy, developing into a jealous and patronising best friend as she grows up and progresses in her relationship with Tommy. In one particular scene, where Ruth comes to talk about Kathy’s crush on Tommy, Kathy is lying in bed listening to her cassette tape from Hailsham when Ruth appears in the doorway, almost silhouetted and ghostly, and slowly comes over until she is inches from Kathy’s face and says, “You see the thing is Kathy, Tommy really likes you as a friend, but he just doesn’t see you that way”. The way Ruth is portrayed in the film is quite extreme in comparison to the book and one girl from the screening picked up on this point, saying that in the book Ruth and Kathy love each other and their relationship just isn’t reflected that way visually on screen.

I would mostly agree with that comment, but I did feel that the the younger generation of actors from the first hour of the film were extremely talented. Isobel Meikle-Small (young Kathy), Ella Purnell (young Ruth), and Charlie Rowe (young Tommy) look very similar to their grown selves, and in the featurette Romanek talks about how worried he was that these young actors would be carrying the first act. This was particularly hard for Tommy, with his bursts of anger, and Andrew Garfield says that the experience was horrible, and it really had to mean something when he did it. The younger actors carried the narrative very well, and the characteristics flow through to Knightley, Mulligan and Garfield to provide continuity and firm foundation to their relationships within the film.

In contrast, Kathy, who narrates both the novel and the film, is conveyed differently in the movie, almost like a virgin who doesn’t become involved with boys until her and Tommy are a couple, when it’s too late. It is quite the opposite in the novel, and the girls seemed very keen to talk about this as this meant that Kathy’s character was not the same, and suggested to me, in the film, that she was very lonely at the cottages where they move to after Hailsham. The group also enjoyed discussing one of the key scenes, where young Kathy is holding a pillow whilst she listens to Songs After Dark, and what this could represent; is it a comment on her maternal nature even though she can’t have children, or her sexuality and need for physical contact?

The props the characters used are worn down, reflecting the effect that time has had on them, and time is a key marker in the novel, as it is split into three parts. The film includes this by using washed out backgrounds and a subtitle to illustrate we are moving into another period of their lives.  The characters are not aware of any other way of living; this is their routine, and they want to make the most of it. Ruth becomes frail after her second donation, and when Kathy finds her in the hospital the colours are dull and it feels clean. As they walk down the corridor together you can almost smell the disinfectant that would be covering the floors. “The colour scheme has been very controlled”, Romanek says in the featurette, and Knightley looks almost psychotic within those walls. With dark circles under her eyes and a stiff walk, her body shape also stresses how close she is to “completing”, a term which means quite the opposite in this story.

Another part of the DVD extras was a gallery of Tommy’s drawings, which were drawn by a man named Charlie Cobb, and Romanek talks in the featurette about how Cobb produced many ideas to assist in demonstrating Tommy’s emotions. Tommy misunderstands why he must draw for Hailsham. The drawings are sent to a place called the “Gallery”, owned by Madame (Nathalie Richard) who visits the school on occasion to take the drawings away. Tommy believes the drawings are used to look into their souls so that the guardians know they actually have souls despite being clones, and that when the time comes, Kathy and Tommy can prove they are in love. The drawings are actually used to show the outside world that these clones or “creatures” have feelings, and are just like humans. This links in with the other extra, the gallery of the National Donor Programme, which contains a slideshow of leaflets used, titled ‘They think, they feel, they suffer’, which discuss the ways the public can aid their donors and support them. Madame fears the donors in the novel, and the girls in the discussion commented on how they thought that becoming a carer first instead of donating straight away was almost like a “golden ticket” or a way out. Inevitably, Kathy may have been a carer, but she loses the people she loves as time clasps its hands around them, until it is her turn to start donations.

It is a beautiful novel, and the adaptation is almost spot on. It suggests that from an early age, we all know our fate, similar to Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. Would you deliberately take your life away if you knew your life would be remarkably shorter anyway? Romanek and Garland have seized the key concepts from Ishiguro’s story and through stunning cinematography, most certainly have shaken a fair few girls to tears last night. It is a relief to know that this DVD will sit on my shelf with the rest of my collection, displaying the creativity of all the people involved with this piece of work, proving that they are only human too, and part of an exhibition of talents that will only continue to grow in the film world.