Posted by: greercn | February 6, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Nuance and understatement are the lynchpins of a certain kind of British drama. “Never Let Me Go” keeps the restraint and the attenuated emotion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, but adds a gloss. But there is a wasabi – Japanese horseradish –  effect here.  You are stunned into caring strongly about these people while you are watching their story. Then, you realise the empathy has only lasted very briefly after the credits have rolled.

This was my second viewing and I hoped that I would find more to love here than I had before. I didn’t. Frankly, I don’t think there is grace in hanging on in quiet desperation when the worst is about to happen. Similarly, Ishiguro’s beliefs – evident in this novel and in “The Remains Of The Day” –  worry me. His subtext is that artistic creativity offers the only redemption and possible legacy and that only the very clever and gifted can find love.  That premise is just dangerously wrong.

Briefly, the plot is about three young people who are being raised to be living organ donors. This will kill them, sooner rather than later. We follow them in a rather 1950s present, which is meant to be a science fiction version of modern reality. if you like chirpy boarding school tales, you will enjoy the early part of the film. Surely a comformist body farm cannot be described as idyllic?

Carey Mulligan, as Kathy, is the narrator and the story follows the love triangle she has with Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). As their younger selves Isobel Meikle-Small (Kathy), Ella Purnell (Ruth) and Charlie Rowe (Tommy) are all super young performers who segue seamlessly to their older selves. All three should have great careers ahead of them.

Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins and Nathalie Richard are all great, in surprising and chilling ways. Andrea Riseborough (who is in everything now, it seems) and Domhnall Gleeson play a young couple very affectingly. He looks vaguely like Rupert Grint.

But you are meant to believe that Kathy pines for Tommy forever? Feminists will howl. Heck, women with backbone will seethe. The guy goes off with your best friend for seven years and you just brood and accept it and continue to hang around them? It’s not that the story hates women. It’s that the central premise is Miss Havisham following around the still-living lost love. Kathy, please darling, get a grip! Tommy isn’t even the only guy in the room.  I am restraining myself from going on and on and on. And on.

What did I like? Alex Garland’s script is clever and literate and curbs the worst excesses of Ishiguro’s misogyny. The cinematography by Adam Kimmel (“Lars and the real Girl”) is just fabulous, lingering over pastoral landscapes and Norfolk beaches. Mark Romanek’s directing is clear and evades the longeurs of the novel neatly.

Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network” and “Red Riding”) now has a trans-Atlantic CV he can be very proud of. His presence equals Mulligan’s and Knightley’s.

Rachel Portman’s music has that portentous and emotionally baiting quality that I detest. It didn’t seem to annoy others, but I found it incredibly intrusive.

Should you see it? Probably. It’s a Great British Movie and people will talk about it. The live satellite feed to the Stratford Picturehouse from Clapham Picturehouse featured a question and answer session which Edith Bowman chaired intelligently. Kazuo Ishiguro and co-producer Allon Reich were asked questions. Amazingly, nobody else – and almost all the questions were from women – wondered if it was just plain horrifyingly-wrong that a 2011 film should be based on the idea that a doomed woman loves a doomed man who is involved with someone else, no matter what.

I guess unrequited love is still a romantic notion. I find it depressing and life-sapping, in the way it is presented here. From the questions asked at Clapham, people are  reverential to Ishiguro. I may be the last feminist on the planet. Somebody, give me a special fund.



  1. Just stumbled upong your blog. I like your take on Never Let Me Go. I watched it a while back and it left me with a luke warm feeling. I borderline disliked the film. I agree the premises is quite outrageous. After much discussion with my friends (who have read the book), I realized that the film was just under developed. You hit the nail on the head when you say empathy is shortlived. We should be more moved no? Have you read the book? I thought about it, but the film just left such a bad taste in my mouth, I thought, “why bother?”

    • Thanks for the great comment. I don’t like Ishiguro, having read “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go”. I had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook. She likes Ishiguro and thinks the passivity of the characters in the book of “Never” is compelling, offbeat and different. I reread it, as I respect her opinions. I admire the elegant writing, but I find I am wishing the characters would fight their fate in some way. I just don’t think sitting back and accepting a bad situation has anything to recommend it. I accept that’s a personal reaction and not true for everyone.

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