Never Let Me Go : Everlasting Love

9 minute read
Richard Corliss

Hailsham, the elite English school portrayed in Never Let Me Go, has a lot in common with Hogwarts. Its gifted students receive special training, along with potent spells and dangers. The headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), has the gaunt majesty of a female Dumbledore. And like Harry Potter, the kids of Hailsham — including Kathy, Tommy and Ruth — are full-time residents; their school is their world.

But in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel and in the poignant, troubling and altogether splendid new film version, these three kids — who grow up to be played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley — are far from the precocious teens of the J.K. Rowling franchise. Twelve or 13 when the film begins, in 1978, they are sweet and somehow unformed. They respond to the smallest perks — like an old George Formby movie or a rummage sale of gewgaws — with an infant’s innocent rapture. And they’re afraid to venture beyond the school walls, where it’s rumored that mutilation and starvation await the curious or wandering child. The tales must be true, Ruth says. “Who’d make up stories as horrible as that?”

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Ah, what is childhood if not the grim fairy tales and horrible lies that adults tell the young? For most of their time at Hailsham, the kids remain ignorant of their secret mission. Those who have not read the book and wish to be shielded from a major plot point that comes 25 minutes in should stop reading now. Do see the movie — which premieres at the Telluride Film Festival before opening in North American theaters Sept. 15 — then come back and we’ll talk.

Even among the creative team, there’s debate on how much prior knowledge viewers should bring to the film. Director Mark Romanek, confronted with a one-word definition of the children, says, “I’d love it if people wouldn’t use that word talking about it to people who haven’t seen it.” Ishiguro disagrees. Even when the novel came out, he says, “in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could concentrate on other aspects of the book.”

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So here it is: the Hailsham children are clones. Advanced science has engineered them to serve as healthy donors for the human population; they will “reach completion” — die — in their 20s or 30s after three or four organs have been harvested. Some, like Kathy, spend a few years serving as “carers,” comforting the donors before joining their lot.

Ishiguro shrinks from the term science fiction, but that’s what this is — a futurist vision set in the past in an alternative England. His fable is a cousin of (though not a clone of) the speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick — whose short story “The Impostor” and novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner) describe robots living in the misapprehension that they are human — and of Logan’s Run, in which people lead an idyllic existence under a giant dome until they are killed off at 30.

Any story about what it means to be a clone implicitly asks what it is to be human. This movie’s creatures have all the yearnings that the rest of us do. They fall in love; they scheme and dream. As children, the altruistic Kathy and the moody Tommy form a bond that might ripen into love, but the more competitive Ruth cozies up to Tommy and steals him away. This is the romantic triangle that continues through the second and third acts — in 1985, when the three stay at a halfway house while they wait to be called to duty, and 1993, when Tommy and Ruth have become donors and Kathy a carer — and that should transfix even those viewers wondering when the horror-movie plot will kick in and the clone monster pop out.

Nor is this an insurrectionist Attack of the Clones. When the replicants learn the role they’ve been designed for, they do not rebel; they submit. This ostensible passivity may perplex some U.S. audiences even more than the humanoid plot twist. “It’s not a very American theme, is it?” says Ishiguro. “It’s antithetical to the American creed of how you should face setbacks — that if you fight back, love conquers all.” No, it’s more a Japanese creed, that accepting one’s fate is a form of heroism.

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Because the clones’ time is short, their life cycle — adolescence and old age, maturity and degeneration, first love and last love — is dramatically compressed into 17 years. Screenwriter Alex Garland calls the film “an epic in a nutshell.” That allows for compression of casting as well. The main roles, first as kids, then as young adults, are played by just two sets of actors: Kathy by Izzy Meikle-Small and Mulligan, Tommy by Charlie Rowe and Garfield, Ruth by Ella Purnell and Knightley. It’s a trio of Britain’s finest young stars and, in time, their possible successors.

Ishiguro is quick to scotch any firestorms about cloning, though he says news reports of Dolly the sheep helped him find a locus for the novel. “I don’t want people to come away from the film thinking, I wonder if we should continue experimenting with stem cells. That’s not the intent.”

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Inside its robot heart, Never Let Me Go is a star-crossed-love story of a Romeo and two Juliets — with a sweethearts’ first kiss so long deferred that when it arrives, it feels like a thunderclap. But Romeo and Juliet? Then this must also be a death story. Or as Romanek says, “It’s about the brevity of our time on the planet. And when we become aware of how briefly we’re here, how do we make the best use of our time? And how do we not come to the end of our life and regret our choices? That’s the film I was making. The science-fiction aspects are just a delivery system for those ideas.”

From Page to Screen
Garland, himself the acclaimed writer of novels The Beach and The Tesseract, received an advance copy of the book from Ishiguro, a fellow Londoner. “I nearly called him halfway through to ask if I could buy the rights,” Garland says. “But I knew I had to get to the end. I finished it, called him and said, ‘It’s really good, and I want to make it into a film.'” Adapting it, he recalls, was “a breeze. The imaginative work was done by Ishiguro. But as an emotional process, it was terrifying. The sense of responsibility was enormous, especially because he’s a friend.”

Ishiguro was pleased. “The film has a near perfect structure,” he says. “Alex got it into three acts, and it works very well that way. I told him, ‘Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.’ But what he saw in it and what I saw in it very closely matched.”

Romanek, better known for directing videos (Madonna’s “Rain,” Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”) than for his single feature film (One Hour Photo), might have been thought to possess too burly a sensibility for this delicate material. Yet he imparts a mood so subtle, with so many emotional cataclysms conveyed through a glance or a few tears, that the film might have been made by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.

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The nuance is both emotional and visual. “There are no primary colors anywhere in the film,” the director says. “The color palette for Hailsham we stole from Lindsay Anderson’s If….,” a 1968 fable of rebellion in an English public school. Romanek also researched the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, “which is the beauty of things that are broken and worn and rusted and imperfect. So production designer Mark Digby and I, we just wabi-sabied everything. The dried flowers are an example of that. There’s nothing new in the film. Everything shows the wear of time.”

A Quiet Tragedy
The actors, though, are fresh and blooming. At 25, Mulligan has impressed on TV, stage and the silver screen. When Peter Rice, then the head of Fox Searchlight, saw her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education at Sundance, he e-mailed Romanek, “Hire the genius Mulligan.” The young genius saw Kathy as a gift and a challenge. “My tendency is to emote all the time,” she says, “but I had to play someone who doesn’t say exactly what she feels — to be comfortable in silence.” As the film’s focal figure and narrator, Mulligan makes those silences eloquent, the heartbreak nearly audible.

If Mulligan is the Brit girl to get, Garfield, 27, is the hot young guy. He has already co-starred with Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs and with Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and will soon be seen in the Facebook movie The Social Network and as the next Spider-Man. As Tommy, Garland channels the shy smile and coltish charm of the young Tony Perkins minus the Psycho streak. He admires Tommy’s “sense of purity,” he says. “But he lets himself be corrupted. He betrays himself in that he doesn’t go for what he wants.”

Knightley, at 25 the doyenne of the group after starring in Bend It Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean, has the least sympathetic role. “It’s horrendous,” she says of the acquisitive Ruth. “Through your own jealousy and your own hatred and your own anger, you’ve ended up completely empty.” Knightley calls the story “a tragedy, I suppose. A quiet tragedy. Gosh, I shouldn’t say ‘quiet tragedy.’ That doesn’t really sell it very well. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just the way life is.”

Here’s the way life is: whether we live to be 30 or 90, we all have a death sentence hanging over us. As Garfield says, “What’s important in our lives is that we make the best of this, that we immerse fully in love.” Never Let Me Go is a plea to live and love well, so that long before our time is up, we will truly have reached completion. That way, we can live forever. —Reported by Jumana Farouky / London

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