Sometimes an artist’s instrument is so sharp that many of the viewers will not feel the incision, either on the surface nor in its unusual depth. Such is what you’ll find in Mark Romanek’s new film, Never Let Me Go.
The story sounds like genre, but it is uninterested in the elements that drive genre. It is not only a deconstruction; it seeks to find the true universality in what, in the past, has been a very specific, gimmicky idea. And it succeeds without reserve.
The premise, which unveils itself in the first act, is that humanity has, at least from the perspective of the film, decided that farming cloned humans for replacement parts is a good idea. But this is not the stuff of Logan’s Run and The Island. It is not about escaping an inhumane fate by running away from it with a trail of gunfire and crashed future vehicles. It’s much more in the spiritual space, unexpectedly, of Blade Runner, but set in the English countryside, with Carey Mulligan’s Kathy as our gun-less, more self-aware Deckard. She and all the young characters wrestle with what they know and choose not to know.
Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland, working with the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, have built the story so that it’s not about the reveal. There are no Gotcha moments. What gets you is the lack of shock.
In this insular world, there are few outsiders. The audience becomes one. As we accept the premise, without rage, we accept our complacency in so many of the world’s horrors. The allusions to the Jewish Holocaust are clearly there, although subtle. It’s not gas chambers you are watching, but a world that looks the other way as the trains roll by and the smoke fills the air at dusk. Why wasn’t there more screaming and fighting and rage on display from inside of those trains as rolled along in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s? Of course, we cannot judge these victims by the simple poles of right and wrong. We can’t really judge these people at all. As they see our blank faces trying to look away as they pass, it is we who should be judged by them, though they have no sense of this. They survive by their nature, adjusting without question to a world in which they do not believe they control their fates… or should.
At the center of this story are Kathy, Ruth & Tommy. The Thinker, The Girl Id, and the Simple Boy. They are, on some level, clichés wandering through this story. But the size of the ideas make them more than that. They are helpers – carers, even – to the audiences, allowing us into their world without forcing the film to verbalize the experience for us. They just Are. It is because we know them that we don’t have to intellectualize them.
The story, on the surface, is also quite simple. Things, until late in the film, go pretty much according to the plan their world has for them. Personal acts don’t change much of anything.
But as the movie continues down the tracks, we, as an audience, have to live with what we know… what seems inevitable… unstoppable. And that is the mighty hammer of this film. These children, whether 8 or 28, are us… they are strangers… they are homeless people we pass on the streets of cities… they are victims of warring societies held less important than the politics of the men who are safe behind castle walls… they are everyone we have discarded… everyone who were probably could have helped, but rationalized were too far down the track to be saved, so why bother?
But their souls… at the central, mostly unspoken heart of the film… are undeniable, whether smart, simple, vain, or childish. How can we see them as Other, even if they allow us to do so? And as such, their story brings the purity of our souls into doubt.
The production is elegant. The performances are virtually perfect across the board. But make no mistake. This is Carey Mulligan’s movie and she is a near-lock to garner her second Oscar nominations in two years – really two years as a movie actress – for her work.
Keira Knightley, who in some ways has the most thankless role, seems to improve as her choices become clearer and clearer as the film warms in memory. Clearly, this was the plan all along. And Andrew Garfield, who clearly is a perfect match for the comic book Peter Parker, is flawless as the embodiment of ignorance prodded to sublime pain as he processes each bit of information. In support, Sally Hawkins, who embodies a very specific war-time archetype, and Charlotte Rampling, who brings her kink to the headmistress who carries the truth hidden in her heart, are exceptional.
Rachel Portman’s score should be hard to beat for her second Oscar. I expect it will stand alone as beautifully as it stands in the film.
There is remarkable work from cinematographer Adam Kimmel, editor Barney Pilling, production designer Mark Digby, and set decorator Michelle Day, amongst a mighty crew. Major hat tap to Tessa Ross, for this exec producing this film as well as new films from Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh, amongst others.
But in the end, it comes back to Romanek, who cannot be said to have an oeuvre after just two feature films. But how I wish he would step up to the plate more often. The growth, in great part because of the content, since One Hour Photo, is profound. This film feels like the product of Kubrick and Malick’s bastard son. In fact, it seems to me that had Kubrick lived a bit longer and met Romanek, he might have handed AI to him instead of Spielberg. Truth be told, Romanek could make AI tomorrow and it would be so different, at the core, than Spielberg’s, that it would stand on its own. Where Spielberg bathed in iconography, Romanek would no doubt bolt the story to a wooden floor covered in used toys, never to be any more imaginary than a child could actually be.
What a year it has been for this young band of directors, already so well credentialed, but not yet seen as The Adults In The Room, succeeding The Coppola/Scorsese/Spielberg era. (Soderbergh is the man stuck between the eras.) With Jonze’s underrated and often-misunderstood Where The Wild Things Are, Corbijn’s The American, this film and Fincher’s The Social Network coming in less than a month, it’s like watching the next wave crashing on the beach, still not quite the in charge of the coast… but getting closer with each small wonder of a film… until they are undeniable. The level of the work… one sees so many good, competent films… but this is just a different level of ambition. It’s almost an unspoken Dogma-type grouping, without the effort to self-hype or to restrain creativity in any way. (Perhaps they will be known as The Palm Director’s Series Gang.)
Never Let Me Go is a masterpiece… a film we’ll be discussing, frame by frame, in schools, 20 years from now. I can only hope that this doesn’t mean it will be underappreciated now.
Maybe you need to have some Kathy in you to connect to it fully. Maybe not. Perhaps the Tommys and Ruths will not like what they see. And certainly, some people just don’t want to feel that much in a cinema. And that is certainly their right.
For me, Never Let Me Go is why I love cinema. It is smart and demanding and emotional and rigorous and profoundly artful. It is more than “a good story well told.” It is humanity on a screen. And it trusts us, as thinking, feeling adults, to do the work.