Thursday, October 21, 2010
Never Let Me Go (2010) A Film by Mark Romanek
I'm a firm believer in the idea that a film inspired by literature need not transcribe its source material religiously, that it can, and should, simply extract something from the spirit or thematic quality of the work. I would argue that the most compelling cinematic adaptations of novels - The Shining, Hiroshima Mon Amour - riff vaguely off what's on the page, taking only the feel of it and reinterpreting it as something entirely distinct. With that said, there's something warm and comfortable about a faithful adaptation as well, especially for fans of the original novel. Some stories call for a certain manner of telling that perhaps would be done a disservice to in the hands of an over-ambitious filmmaker. When you find yourself sandwiched in between these two extremes - the feeling of a director primarily sticking to his text but straying wantonly from it at the most crucial moments - you get something like Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, a precious film of the Oscar-baiting variety. I was reasonably impressed by the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), which was hyperbolically proclaimed as the best novel of the decade in some circles, so I was interested to see how Romanek (One Hour Photo, a plethora of music videos) would handle it. That he extracts the romance that was a mere simmering undertone in an otherwise rich thematic palette in the book and makes it just about the entire purpose of the film is as groan-inducing as it is woefully predictable, given the propensity for mass movie audiences to latch onto one, not many, emotional registers.
Signs of Never Let Me Go's one-dimensional melodrama come early and often, when Romanek starts laying on thick an air of sadness and fatalism. The voiceovers of Carey Mulligan - who embodies the story's beating heart and narrator, Kathy - replace the ambiguous flatness of Ishiguro's first-person prose with an emotional severity and a devastating awareness of her condition. Her condition, of course, being the peculiar, sci-fi flourish that the book so effectively employs, and that the film tosses out there only as a barometer with which to judge the romantic trajectories of its main characters: the generation of children that is the center of attention is actually a batch of clones in a medically advanced hypothesis of society. This premise itself, patiently revealed in the novel and more or less nodded at in the opening dictum of the film, is naturally one that leaves ample possibility for poeticism at Romanek's doorstep. The ephemeral nature of life, the sense of literal and figurative borders put up by children in their earliest stages that dictates their eventual moral compass, the debate of nature vs. nurture, the exploitation of the individual in the face of a larger political and social hierarchy, the question of what constitutes a "soul": these are all concerns that are readily present in Ishiguro's novel. Romanek either strands them entirely or suffocates them underneath the big emotions on display at the center of the story, wilting away like the very setting of the first section of the film, the English boarding school Hailsham.
Hailsham's definition as a "boarding school" is, of course, like many of the rigidly sustained definitions in the community's vernacular, problematic: it's a euphemism for what is really a clone development center, a place where these quasi-humans can be nurtured so that their organs will be healthy for their ultimate "donations", the final step before "completion". It becomes clear that the lives, or fabrications, of these people (or not?), are completely pre-destined, lined up as if life is but a series of checkpoints before the time is up. The beauty of Ishiguro's novel is in the devastating acceptance of fate these character's have inevitably built into the fabric of their existence. By the end of the film, a masochistic melancholy has been established. Fortunately, Romanek retains the inaction of the central figures - Kathy and her two friends Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) - and doesn't turn it into some tale of rebellion that would be entirely out of line psychologically, but he does portray what amounts to an emotional explosion that the book does not indulge in. Tommy gets out of a car with Kathy to scream hopelessly into the dark night (at the very least, Garfield, a promising actor, delivers a powerful bellow) after they have been denied a nonexistent "deferral" from donations on terms of love, one of many tall-tales that was spread around Hailsham.
Particularly, it is this first section of the film - this spreading of rumors, creation of false pretenses, and aura of secrecy - that Romanek fumbles, delivering a sadly cliff-noted version of what is the book's finest, most mysterious stretch. It's the naive vulnerability here of the children that is so compelling, driven as they are to convince themselves of the supposedly ideal nature of their suppressed lives. But Romanek hits only the major notes, failing to turn his camera towards the quieter, telling moments that don't necessarily have any narrative import. Worse yet is his altercation of the book's title scene, in which Kathy swoons with a doll in her arms to the song "Never Let Me Go" by a fictional Judy Bridgewater before being ominously observed by the school's mysterious headmaster. The implication, obviously, is of the sexual impotence of these clones, how they can never enjoy the privilege of nurturing a child no matter how badly they desire it. More fundamentally, it's a moment of offhand intimacy and introspection painfully understood by the otherwise cold, calculating headmaster, a spark of humanity that would suggest the answer is "yes" to the story's omnipresent "soul-or-no-soul" question. In Romanek's streamlined vision of the scene though, Kathy is watched tenderly by Ruth, and the feeling has been reduced to an expression of longing for Tommy, which is ultimately the love triangle that the film plainly concerns itself with. More interesting is to watch the faces of Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell (the young Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, respectively) - all of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to their older counterparts - as they negotiate the complex emotions the story calls on them to exude. These iconic faces are the heart of the film, and they do a great deal to elevate Romanek's schematic, detached presentation.
There won't be anyone coming out of Never Let Me Go saying the visuals were unflattering, but at the same time it wouldn't be the boldest proclamation to say the visuals are stunning. Adam Kimmel's pristine cinematography lays a thick gloss of prettiness and respectability, but it often trivializes the story and characters, transforming it all into a series of postcards. When Kathy and Tommy go for a stroll around "The Cottages" in the second part of the film, the sensation has less to do with the warm emotionality of these two friends and would-be lovers communicating timidly than it does with the picturesque way Romanek frames them against the skyline and the vast expanses of farm fields. It's not poetic, like in the work of Terrence Malick, because it has little complexity to fall back on, no foundation of psychological and thematic richness. Though Never Let Me Go will likely win awards and impress the masses, it remains a failure as an adaption of depth, a squandering of the enormous potential of the premise.