Next year MTV is going to be having its thirtieth anniversary, meaning that music videos have been in the mainstream for even longer than that. That medium isn’t exactly flourishing anymore, as the network that made them famous has decided to move their focus to crappy reality shows, but they still sort of live on via Youtube. In the thirty years that this medium has existed we’ve seen dancing zombies, a pep rally from hell, Tupac chilling in a post-apocaliptic wasteland with Dr. Dre, and a wide variety of other iconic images. More to the point, we’ve also seen the rise of a lot of A-list directors who sharpened their teeth making these promotional clips. Among these ranks are David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry. Despite the fact that music videos have birthed all of these respected careers, when people think of music video directors the first thing that comes to mind is overly fast editing and pointless visual tricks. This reputation isn’t entirely undeserved, after all this medium has given us a lot of Platinum Dunes caliber hacks as well as a lot of people like McG, but it’s still an unnecessary generalization. I feel that way more than ever now that I’ve seen Never Let Me Go, a film that’s not without its problems but which is as devoid of the “MTV style” as a movie can possibly be.
Never Let Me Go is a film which has a twist of sorts very early into its runtime, so early that it’s impossible to adequately discuss the film without giving away this twist. As such this is to be considered a spoiler review, read at your own risk. The film more or less fits into the sci-fi subgenre of alternate history, in that it technically takes place in the past, but one that has be altered by the introduction of a fictional science fiction element. In this case the film, set in Britain from the 60s through the 90s, examines what the world would be like had we invented perfect human cloning in the 1950s. Specifically it postulates that in this world clones would have been bred in order for their organs to be donated at a young age, thus allowing human life expectancy to be greatly expanded. This is told from the perspective of one of these clones named Kathy (Carey Mulligan), who’s being educated at a school called Hailsham, which appears to be a very traditional English boarding school but which has a very strange curriculum. She meets a boy named Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who she forms a very close friendship with. It feels like there’s a childhood romance brewing, but in the end he drifts toward her friend Ruth (Keira Knightley). What could be a sweet tale of youthful romance is instead shadowed by the specter of tragedy to come; these people will all be forced to “donate” their organs and will likely die before the age of forty.
In crude terms, Never Let Me Go is like Atonement meets Logan’s Run… emphasis heavily on Atonement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though the film can be called Science Fiction, it certainly isn’t an action movie; it’s a prestige drama based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose other famous adaptation was an excellent Merchant Ivory production called The Remains of the Day. This film probably could have been shot by James Ivory as well; it’s a film that’s really stylistically restrained almost to a fault. Aside from some pretty cool art direction reminiscent of the future-naturalism of Children of Men, and a couple of good uses of natural lighting, one could hardly tell that this is being made by a vital modern music video maestro and not… well, James Ivory. I mentioned Atonement before, and this is remarkably similar to that movie, but even that had a cool single shot scene on Dunkirk Beach, while this seemed to go out of its way to avoid trickery. There are merits to this approach, but I couldn’t help but wonder if more energy could have been injected with a less traditional approach.
The performances her are certainly very good. We’re given three of Britain’s most promising young actors and all of them do a fine job with the material. Carey Mulligan in particular is really strong here and she totally makes good on the promise she showed in An Education. Keira Knightley is also really good in the movie, she’s a real talent and I don’t much like the poor reputation she’s gotten in the wake of her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Yeah, she didn’t necessarily burn up the screen in that movie, but she didn’t really have much to work with, those kind of franchises are an unfortunate necessity for young actors in Hollywood and she’s a lot better in movies like this and the aforementioned Atonement. Andrew Garfield is also very good here and he’s continuing an extremely good year with this performance. This is probably the best work I’ve seen from the guy and I’m beginning to believe the hype.
I certainly appreciated the craft of the film and the melancholy tone that Mark Romanek was able to create, but I can’t quite say the movie completely worked for me and the root of the problem is that I could never really believe the science fiction world of the film. That the film’s central concept is really unsettling is an understatement, the ethics of creating a class of organ incubating slaves is horrifying. What’s really scary is that I could picture human society as willing to go to these lengths too, people have proven through the ages that they’re more than willing to live on the backs of the less fortunate classes. What I cannot buy is the lack of blowback that this society receives for what they’ve created. There’s no real sign of any kind of resistance in the background, there are no clone abolitionists, there’s no underground railroad for these clones, no clone suicide bombers, and the idea of escape never seems to occur to the characters. In fact these people seem almost oblivious to the fact that their lot in life is fubar. They just accept their fate like a bunch of English butlers and march towards the inevitable.
What I wanted was some sign of resistance, even futile resistance, on the part of these clones or at least some better explanation as to why they’re putting up with the evil being perpetrated against them. Part of me realizes that what I’m asking for is the Hollywood interpretation of this story and that the people who made it would say that their nihilistic take on this world is more realistic. I beg to differ; this is one of those rare circumstances where I think the Hollywood take on storytelling is more true to life. If history has shown us nothing it’s that society cannot treat people like garbage and not expect some consequences. Usually the ruling class will ultimately win in struggles against the oppressed, but they’re going to at least get their hands dirty in the process. That’s not present here and there seemed to be something profoundly wrong about that to me.
Ultimately, this is a strange movie. What it feels like is a historical movie about a past injustice. Something like Brokeback Mountain, where you see people tragically split by an injustice which makes you want to do something about the topic at hand… then you remember that the social issue at the center of the film is not and never was real. I don’t know why these filmmakers and authors have spent this much time and effort trying to point out the injustice of a fictional issue, and the results are mixed. I’d recommend the movie for its mastery of tone and the acting, but the whole thing just never really quite feels right.
*** out of Four