To the capital’s glamorous West End, then, and the Opening Night Gala of this year’s London Film Festival at the Odeon Leicester Square. Introducing this film adaptation of his novel Never Let Me Go, the author Kazuo Ishiguro hailed the film’s stars – Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield – as being at the forefront of a new generation of actors. Arguably, Ishiguro was whipping up a bit of hyperbole, but Never Let Me Go is part of a slow shift away from heritage Brit drama towards a more subversive and questioning style of movie-making.
I suppose it would be easy to compare Never Let Me Go to Atonement. Both films are based on acclaimed novels; both figure a typically photogenic stately home inside which secrets lie; both figure a typically photogenic stately Keira Knightley; both deal in feelings of guilt and the attempts of one character to redeem herself for past crimes. And, as with Atonement, Never Let Me Go initially presents a reassuringly familiar and comfortable set-up – only for the rug to get pulled out from underneath you.
I should point out now that there’s going to be spoilers ahead.
The stately home here is Hailsham, an elite English boarding school presided over by the imperious Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), where pupils are encouraged in artistic pursuits, their best work submitted to “the gallery” for approval. No one goes outside the school perimeter; we hear one story of a pupil who left the grounds and was later found tied to tree, their hands and feet having been cut off. There is little, if any contact with the outside world. In this strange, creepy place we meet Ruth, Kathy and Tommy. It’s the 1970s, and the three protagonists are young, not quite in their teens, but still they’re fumbling with nascent adolescent feelings; Ruth and Tommy for each other, while Kathy sets her sights on having Tommy for herself.
You might think at this point we’re going to flash forward 10 or 15 years and fall into a thoughtful, high-end relationship drama, with some stiff upper lippery and plenty of unrequited love. Which we sort of do, but not quite as you might expect. This isn’t England as we know it; this is a sort of alternate reality, an England where the state has eradicated illness and disease by cloning human beings and farming out their organs until such time as they “complete” – Ishiguro’s euphemism for death. The children of Hailsham are bred specifically to save lives. But what of their own lives and their own feelings?
Their eventual fate is revealed to them while they’re still at Hailsham, and what follows – when the adult Ruth (Knightley), Kathy (Mulligan) and Tommy (Garfield) are living in remote “cottages”, still shielded from the real world – provides moments of heartbreak, tenderness and false hopes. Mulligan, who apart from an early role in a Doctor Who episode, is not an actress I warm to tremendously – she was, frankly, punchable in An Education – and Knightley has rarely offered much suggestion of range. Garfield, though, who was tremendous in The Social Network, is equally good here, as the slow-witted, vulnerable centre of the love triangle. He works hard with Mulligan to create a believable dynamic; she becomes a “carer”, looking after donors as they undergo their operations, and you suspect it’s her childhood relationship with the boy Tommy that brought this out in her. Knightley, as the manipulative Ruth, does a lot to move beyond her comfort zone; the scenes where she’s in hospital, her body beginning to fail from multiple donations, clinging on to a walking frame, is – for once – proper acting.
Ruth’s own moment of atonement, to let Kathy and Tommy be together, is beautifully pitched. And the glimmer of hope – that Kathy and Tommy can defer donating by proving that they love each other – is heartbreakingly played out by Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland.
There is, intriguingly, no ethical debate here. Ishiguro and Garland make the tacit point that if we grow up with a particular horror – in this case, farmed human beings – then human nature will accept it. Most of the Hailsham students, it seems, accept their fate, because they know no other set of circumstances. When Kathy and Tommy visit Miss Emily, she says there is no lung cancer, no breast cancer, anymore – who would want to return to darker times when such diseases existed? That she says all this from a wheelchair seems strangely incongruous, but no matter.
Romanek shoots the Hailsham scenes in warm, summer tones; the children basking in the apparent promise of youth. Later, when they reach adulthood, everything is shot in muted, shabby beiges and greys. It perpetually rains. It’s like a Morrissey b-side, particularly when they take a day trip to the Norfolk coast and spend an afternoon on a desolate, windswept pier. It all feels dreadfully hopeless.
I suspect it’s not the kind of period drama that will travel – remember, of course, Ishiguro’s more traditional The Remains Of The Day picked up eight Academy Award nominations. This is too a bleak film, however tasteful and restrained Romanek makes it.
Never Let Me Go opens in the UK on January 21, 2011