Human resources

Duncan Wu applauds the sensitive approach to a tale set in an inhumane world with twisted morals

October 21, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Directed by Mark Romanek

Now on limited release in the US; screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 15 and 17 October; released in the UK on 21 January 2011 Starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield

You have to know who you are and what you are," says Miss Lucy, played by Sally Hawkins, to her schoolchildren. "It's the only way you'll lead decent lives." This is the defining statement of Mark Romanek's powerful film version of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Miss Lucy makes a principled stand that will destroy her livelihood and brand her as a subversive. But it identifies this as a profoundly moral tale about what it means to behave humanely.

Set in an alternative, dystopian Britain of the postwar period, the film concerns a world in which serious illness is treated by the replacement of vital organs donated by young people bred exclusively for that purpose. "Students at Hailsham are special," they are told by another schoolmistress, Miss Emily, played by Charlotte Rampling. But their specialness is defined only by negatives: they are punished by mutilation and death for attempting to escape the boundaries of the school; they are forbidden to smoke with the threat of terrible sanctions; and are regarded as physical organisms without a soul. Like Ishiguro's novel, the film explores the inhumanity of producing children for the purpose of inserting their organs into the bodies of the diseased and dying. "If you asked people to return to the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor neuron disease - they'd just say 'No'," says Miss Emily, as if there could be no further discussion.

The plot focuses on three young people who grow up together at Hailsham, a school established entirely for "donors", as they are called. In a sensitive examination of adolescence, the film traces their growth into adulthood and the formation of a love-triangle. Ishiguro's achievement is to describe guilt and the desire for absolution within a context that makes those things more urgent than they could ever be in real life. At its heart is an act of deliberate cruelty that ultimately compels one of the three characters, Ruth (Keira Knightley), to confess: "I've had years to work out what I did and years to work out how to make it right. It's the worst thing I ever did."

Both the novel and film may be said to belong to the genre of science fiction, in the same sense that such a label could be attached to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale. The screenwriter, Alex Garland, has treated the novel and its intricacies with sensitivity, and the impeccable acting of the cast succeeds in making the appalling drama of the novel completely authentic. During the last 20 minutes, there are several scenes in which the emotional forces of the plot are brought into acutely painful focus.

I cannot help but recall my own school years, which, by coincidence, were spent at the same school as Ishiguro, who left it shortly before I arrived. It was a state-run grammar school on its last legs, axed in 1977. What we had in common was an Asian name to single us out from the largely white British clientele, and I suspect that for each day of his life Ishiguro was subject to the same experience as I - racial abuse, verbal and physical. I would not be so reductive as to propose that Ishiguro's fable functions as a metaphor for his time at school, but I do think that few British writers are as well qualified to write about the pain of being singled out for punishment, or the failure of common humanity in postwar Britain.

I suppose, if one wanted to criticise the nuts and bolts, it could be said that Rampling - a highly sophisticated actress - has handled greater challenges than she is given here. Indeed, the cast contains several actors whose range is greater than this film would have us believe. But the three principals - Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Knightley - are those on whom the burden of the plot rests, and it is one they carry with ease.

In essence, this film prompts us to ask what makes us human. That was a powerful enough message in 2005, when Ishiguro's novel was first published and the West was fighting wars in the Middle East, the morality of which was under question; it is no less powerful today. Never Let Me Go is a tricky proposition for a film-maker because of the manner in which it takes that theme and adumbrates it as a coming-of-age drama set in an alternative reality. Not only has Romanek accomplished that challenging task, but he has done justice to the emotional heart of the story. There is an adage that great novels make poor films; Never Let Me Go is the exception.

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