directed by Mark Romanek; written by Alex Garland; starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
screened as the Opening Night Gala on October 13th; also screened on October 15th and 17th
Never Let Me Go. The words float from the cassette recording, an unknowing request through a romantic gift. That the cassette has shifted from being a melancholy emblem in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel to something fleetingly included here seems at odds with the change of project the film seems to pursue. But this short shrift isn’t exactly representative of a film that could be simply described as diluting its source. It seems instead to refocus it, keeping Kathy H’s voiceover merely as a bare framework as opposed to its overwhelming first person presence in the novel, and explaining the secret of these characters’ existence almost immediately, to channel the involvement into the love triangle instead. Perhaps a slight trivialisation of an intriguing topic, but Ishiguro’s novel hardly delved deeply into the wider repercussions of this alternate past either, blocked by the particulars of Kathy H’s ‘human’ experience.
So maybe Alex Garland’s script makes for a more honest approach to Ishiguro’s obtuse disguise by shifting focus, but new weaknesses crack through; Ruth (Keira Knightley), always the least explored and probably least interesting point of the triangle, is almost demonized, hovering menacingly behind doorframes and giving cruel looks to Kathy (Carey Mulligan), a girl who is supposed – and the paucity of conviction in this is the film’s weakest aspect of all – to be her best friend. None of the characters are helped by the child actors who play out the difficult dynamics in the first section – not exactly aided by a script that seems too keen to truncate the school experience (seen most baldly in the terribly expositional role Sally Hawkins is given), but too studied and brash to work against the harsh angles of these early scenes. Ironically, it ends up being Knightley’s late scenes as Ruth that are the most striking, with a heavy weight to her words and physicality that seem entirely unfamiliar from the lithe actress, but by then Ruth has been and has herself let go.
Yet somehow, despite the strength of Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, the stronger leaning towards character over moral dilemma does not change the approach the story takes in trying to move us. Without really exploring how these ‘clones’ function in this universe – two frissons with strangers they watch during a trip to a seaside town hint at this wider idea – we can only accept them as closed off from the world, and so Garland’s favouring of characters makes sense. But at these same moments, the imagery (a ball, lost over a fence; a panorama of the broken toys the students joyfully ‘buy’) and the ending try to open the film up to the moral dilemmas. It’s something the film can’t let go of, because it singularises it, but it can’t find a way to properly modulate between the two different angles.
It has to, by design, mark out our focus within the segregation – so while they’re all “students of Hailsham”, Tommy wears blue to the white of the others, or Kathy sits outside, disinterested in the excitement of the sale. Naturally, while our characters might be clones, they’re less clones than those around them, and this niggles as an excuse to merely scratch the idea of this society and not investigate it. If I keep repeating this point, it’s only because it seems to be an impossible situation – perhaps it’s the necessary truncation into a manageable length that was never going to be able to finely contain the details of the novel, no matter how much the cinematic treatment might help the story by packing pages of Kathy’s observation into single images. The specificity both gains and loses something. Like the clones, perhaps, the film isn’t inferior; it’s just troublesome in a rather different way.