Monday, September 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go

This movie has been dividing critics for a few weeks. There are folks that really love it and folks that can't stand it. I'm on the "really love it" side, but I think I understand why some people aren't connecting with it. This was my favorite thing I saw this weekend, so without further ado, let's dig into...

Never Let Me Go

This is a movie essentially about death. It's kind of a downer, and it's very British, which is part of the problem I think people have with it. But I'll get into that later. Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate version of our own world, where scientific breakthroughs that our world has not yet made (or at least taken advantage of) have led to significant extensions in human longevity. But we don't hear much about that at first (or really, in much of the rest of the movie). Our concern is to be with Kathy H. and her childhood friends, Tommy and Ruth.

Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth attend a kind of boarding school called Hailsham. It looks like most other boarding schools, but there's something a bit different about it. Their new teacher explains to them the conceit that frames the film. These children are not like other children. They cannot grow up and be anything they want to be. They were created for a specific purpose. They will be adults, but not for very long. After they leave school, they will begin their "donations," and when their bodies can no longer sustain themselves, they will achieve "completion." In our own terms, these children have been cloned in order to provide organs for transplants. They are kept alive as long as possible, through as many organ removal surgeries as their bodies can handle, until they die, after which presumably the remainder of their organs are kept for future use. The teacher who tells the children this is either fired or abruptly leaves the school, but she is not really telling the children anything they don't already know.

See, unlike a lot of these "clone farm" plots, and there are several, where people are being raised in order for their organs to be harvested, these children are not being lied to. They are fully aware of what is in store for them, and that they will not live long past the age of thirty. They accept this and make no effort to fight it. They don't even seem to think of themselves as being the same as their "originals." They go to school and are never allowed to leave the property until they are 18, when they move to living facilities with others like themselves and await their notice for the first donation, after which they will be moved to a kind of hospital. They have an option to apply to be "Carers," which is not a medical position but rather one of moral support for someone through their donation process.

There is a sweet romance at the center of the film. Kathy and Tommy are childhood sweethearts, but Ruth comes between them and instead she and Tommy are the couple for several years. This is actually maybe my favorite performance that I've seen from Keira Knightley (who plays Ruth). It's refreshing to see her play kind of a bad girl - well, not bad exactly, but our sympathies are not really with her, at least in the love triangle plot. I'm becoming more and more intrigued by Andrew Garfield, who plays Tommy. I first took notice of him in the extraordinary Red Riding 1974, and his is supposedly one of the strongest among several strong performances in the upcoming The Social Network; and of course he's going to be a much bigger deal soon, when he takes on the red and blue tights of Spiderman. He's pretty wonderful here. His character as a child is very angry and prone to bouts of rage, but these urges are subdued as he gets older, which makes his one last outburst at a key moment in the film that much more emotional.

The jewel in the crown, though, as might be expected, is new Hollywood "It" girl Carey Mulligan, who plays Kathy. She gives the film its soul and there's such an understated peace to her performance that I found really moving. She makes the most of her circumstances and does try to get a deferral for the start of her donations, but she has accepted her fate. The realization she eventually has that makes up the last lines of the film is pretty staggeringly beautiful. I have to give props, too, to Isobel Meikle-Small, who plays young Kathy. Not only does she physically resemble Mulligan quite uncannily, she also gives a pretty great (and not child-actor-y) performance.

Whether you like this movie or not is probably going to depend on a couple of things. First, I think younger people may have a hard time identifying with this movie. The theme of death and coming to the end of one's life is one that is probably more easily accepted and relatable to older viewers. Second, this movie is most definitely British - not just in setting and regarding the cast, but in terms of tone. There is a distinct "stiff upper lip" reserve about it that I think a lot of Americans are put off by or at least have trouble connecting with. I noticed something similar in people who didn't like Gosford Park, another movie that is English Liek Woah. I think people want it to be more dramatic and conflict-heavy, but that's just not the point of this story. It's not that there's no conflict, obviously, but I think a lot of people just don't buy the quiet acceptance. That's totally their prerogative, but I don't share that opinion.

Very, very good movie. I wish it every success as it traverses the dangerous waters of Oscar season, and I have no doubt we'll still be talking about it when those awards roll around.

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