A Blue Harvest
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is an astonishingly heartbreaking dystopian novel in the vein of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and P.D. James' The Children of Men. While you could call it a romance, it's actually more of a coming-of-age story, told with flitting narration from Kathy, a "carer" in a future where cloning has allowed for the elimination of most complications from disease and life expectancy has leapt to well over 100. Donors are raised from birth in special schools where their life is that they will eventually donate vital organs to others until they reach "completion." What seems like a simple boarding school romance becomes a tragic love story about three friends who try to find happiness and love in what short lives they have until they are essentially carved up for spare parts. Ishiguro's novel is such a moral morass, a fascinating horror story, all casually related by Kathy, who takes care of donors until she is due to come under the knife.
I am positive that somewhere Mark Romanek has created a two-and-a-half, maybe even three hour version of this tale, which is just as poetic and haunting and beautiful as the novel. Unfortunately, the version being screened in theaters is a jagged replica, a shoddy version pockmarked with gaping bullet holes like a rural road sign. It feels like Alex Garland copied pages of the novel on index cards and then riffled them into the viewer's face like a mean-spirited version of 52-Pick Up. Every complexity and nuance that makes the novel worthwhile is simonized until every character is one-note and the love story is thrust sloppily into the forefront. It becomes just another period love triangle where two girls fight over one strange boy, only it's set in a world where they're just meatbags on sale at Costco. Is it touching and moving? Well, of course, it can't help but be, but that's more the strength of Ishiguro's moving concerto and less the keyboard-guitar hackjob of Alex Garland's screenplay.
Set in late 20th century England, the technology has been discovered to create clones. Cloned children are raised in various institutions, but the best of the lot is Hailsham. In Hailsham, the children are raised to be artistic and creative, to make portraits and poetry, the best of which is claimed by the mysterious Madame. Hailsham for all intents and purposes is a normal boarding school, run with diligence and grace by the stern but structured Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling). We follow Kathy (Carey Mulligan) as she develops friendships with the snotty Ruth (Keira Knightley) and the sweet but tempermental Tommy (Andrew Garfield). (During the staggeringly brief tenure spent in Hailshim in the film, these parts are all played by child actors, but it's easier for me to just refer to them by their adult counterparts.) All the children taunt Tommy because he's easily set into a violent furor, but Kathy befriends him. However, Ruth, because she's a selfish bitch in the cauterized version of the tale, decides to start dating Tommy. Kathy seems perfectly content to be alone, and possibly wait for Tommy, but Ruth and Tommy stay together forever.
With clever and wonderful subtlety, we begin to realize all is not quite right with Hailsham. The newest guardian -- the term for the teachers/chaperones who watch over the children -- Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) asks the children why they didn't fetch a ball when it barely went off the grounds of Hailsham, and she is regailed with the horror stories about what happens to children who go out of bounds. Whenever they exit or enter a building, the children brush bracelets against a small electronic checkpoint censor which beeps to acknowledge they've left. As they wake in the morning, the girls all grab a carafe of milk and a small paper cup undoubtedly filled with vitamins. It's wonderful touches like this that signify what the movie could have been like. Then Miss Lucy goes off on a passionate rant, explaining to the children that they have no futures as actors or supermarket clerks or office workers, because they are predestined to be skin-coated organ transplant carriers. So Miss Lucy gets whisked away. And then they graduate.
The rest of the film deals with the children as they have left Hailsham and prepare themselves for their duties as donors. Instead of focusing on the overwhelmingly interesting aspects of what it means to be a clone, it becomes about the relationship between Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy. Hailsham is such a massively important point in the children's lives; it's where they develop cavalier attitudes towards relationships and sexuality, how they are conditioned for donation and completion, and so forth. So the fact the film gives this such short shrift to focus merely on a trite love triangle completely disregards the point of the dystopia. Particularly in that they've cut the three main characters down into one-note figures. In the novel, Kathy is just as spiteful as Ruth, and they are constantly bickering with one another, and treating Tommy like luggage or a soccer ball. In the film, Kathy is a virginal angel, who has never touched a boy, who never seems to do any wrong or say mean things. Tommy is a simple sweet boy who seems so smitten with Kathy. And Ruth is merely mean and cruel, selfish and self-important. A love story should never be as easy as "he likes her, she likes him, she likes him too." It's not fair to the actors and actresses, who are more than capable of handling the complexity of these characters. Instead, we see Carey Mulligan pine with her adorable Audrey Hepburnesque babyface, Andrew Garland stutter and smile sweetly, and Keira Knightley act the twat with her femullet. It's annoyingly basic and disrespectful to the source material.
Consideration of what the title means is probably the best way to explain how flawed the film is. The children are given "tokens" for their artwork, which they then use to make purchases at "Sales," which basically consist of thrift store and yard sale castoffs that these children grow to treasure. Kathy finds a cassette tape of a chanteuse singing torch songs, one of which is called "Never Let Me Go." In the film, Tommy buys a copy for her. She listens to it twice, where it's meant to represent her pining for Tommy. In the novel, Kathy believes the song's cheesy lyrics speak of a young mother who hugs her baby and never wants to baby to leave her. She dances with a pillow in her arms, which catches the eye of Madame, who breaks into tears. Kathy loses the tape -- we may be expected to suspect Ruth pilfering it. Later, during a trip, Tommy drags Kathy into a thrift store to see if they can find the tape, which they do. So much meaning, so much nuance, so much symbolism. Instead, the film turns it into a convenient catchphrase, an obvious flashing applause sign to make the audience go "Awww."
I realize that most of this review seems to be me non-stop hawking, "The movie is not the novel!" And well, no shit. Rarely is the film as good as the novel, because there are some things that simply can't be translated cinematically. This isn't merely a case of Chris Columbus treating the first Harry Potter film as a highlights reel of the novel. Huge chunks of the narrative and major symbolism are being cast aside for tawdry and cheap sentimentality. To stay on my HP kick, it would be like telling the Hogwarts story and underplaying all the magic.
The film is still touching and bittersweet, despite all the flaws with how the story is portrayed. You know it'll end tragically -- these kids practically come with an expiration date. However, while Ishiguro's novel tempers the love story with the awe-inspiring notion of what love means to people who are barely considered people, Romanek's film is more like a terminal disease love story. I don't know if you'll enjoy it more if you've never read the book; the performances are wonderful, and it'll more than likely get undeserved Oscar nominations come awards time if only because they're saving a slot for a film just like this. But for those who've read the novel, I can't see anyone being satisfied with the half-assed version. As I said, the only explanation seems to be that there was at one point a full-length cut with all the exposition and sentiment and cleverness which merely got hacked down and sanded to appeal to simple folk. It's a shame to do that injustice to such a smart and thoughtful novel.