Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s retro-fiction novel, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go basks in a very British nowhereland of clones, existential moans and unrequited love.
Do Clones Dream Of Somatic Sheep? by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and with a screenplay by Alex Garland and direction by Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go really should know better. It’s curiously and quaintly Japanese, with its boarding school and country cottages charm, all bygone Britain and Remains Of The Day. And despite some very touching performances, from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in particular, and an enjoyably futuristic-retro premise, Never Let Me Go is never quite creepy enough, or political enough, to get its clones off the operating table.
Its story of three love-crossed clones, who exist for one sole purpose (for their adult organs to be harvested) emerges slowly as the film progresses. After a breakthrough in the ’50s, scientists are able to eliminate cancers and motor neurone disease and raise life expectancy to over 100, by replacing diseased organs with fresh ones from donors. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are three such never-would-have-beens, modelled on ‘originals’ roaming somewhere, and ripened for three or four donations before their ultimate ‘completion’ – science fiction euphemisms which call to mind Margaret Atwood’s own speculative science fiction The Handmaid’s Tale.
Educated at overly exclusive prep school Hailsham, Kathy H, best friend Ruth and love interest Tommy have no idea of the fate awaiting them. Presided over by Charlotte Rampling, a scholastically diabolic Miss Emily, and her lesbian lover Madame, vampiric childcatchers who institutionalise and infantilise their naive charges with fear and rumour, the children are too afraid even to hop over the fence to retrieve a lost ball. Later the feckless trio head to the Cottages, where they’re left to their own meek devices. There they meet other, more worldly human harvestees and the unhappy love triangle sharpens to isosceles. At the sharper end, Kathy cuts short her time at the Cottages and extends her meagre existence by becoming a carer for other organ-bearers as they donate and deteriorate. And so she meets a moribund and mournful Ruth, anxious to bring the sundered lovers back together, urging them to apply for a deferral. Hope based on a spurious rumour that two Hailsham students in love can put off further donations if they can verify their love. But it turns out to be just that, a rumour. And the picture gallery of pupils’ artwork not a window to the clones’ souls and a ticket out, but a lonely protest to a world gone deaf that clones have feelings too.
There’s something vaguely Sixties about this fear of cloning. And in fact, Never Let Me Go is intentionally anachronistic. The schoolkids in 1978 are clad in woollen jumpers and mismatched polo shirts more in keeping with the Fifties than the polyester Seventies. The sartorial disarray becomes clearer when the school “bumper-crop” sale is revealed to be nothing more than a charity store clear-out for these hand-me-down kids. Strange that these organ-grinding ne’er-do-mores should be so under-invested. Strange too that these valuable commodities should be so cheaply fashioned out of guttersnipe originals, as they go searching for their “originals” down and out on Clevedon Pier. Why not clone society’s fittest, strongest, cleverest and best? Rather than these waifs and strays. Perhaps just to ease society’s collective conscience – the überclone one step too far in a search for superman.
But more disturbing than this feeling of being out of time is this incubator isolation. A lifeless limbo haunts their existence as they fumble around with meaningless everyday lives of school, love and work. It’s not life that gives meaning to their lives but their utilitarian death. They’re a secondary caste, born to serve, dressed up in plummy tones, high cheekbones and a boarding school education. And this test tube existence is frustratingly apathetic. No politics or rebellion here, just an agar gloop of frustrated emotion, beautifully materialised by Andrew Garfield in his oh-so existential scream or Kathy H’s final-reel mournfulness tinged with sunset regret. It’s a great performance from Carey Mulligan, but the clones’ lambs-to-the-slaughter naiveté is more estranging than endearing as they accept with passive resignation the meagre hand life’s dealt them. Wide eyes shut.
Like Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, Never Let Me Go really comes to life in its British institutions, its prep school a chilling mix of nostalgia and science fiction. The three young leads are utterly believable, and the playground love and schoolmarmish discipline of the early years is delicately charming. But while the novel may get away with the aspic tragedy of a pointless love, cinema-goers may yearn for red-blooded action or, at the very least, a little hope. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is beautiful, but its electric charge isn’t enough to raise Never Let Me Go from the dead. With all hope clinically excised, a pretty kind of languor is all that’s left in this now-empty Pandora’s box.
Never Let Me Go is released in the UK on 11th February 2011