Great movies are not about issues, they are about people. It’s unfortunate to have to trot out this platitude, but Never Let Me Go doesn’t seem to leave me a choice. While the film’s heart is set on greatness — it’s serious, somber, gorgeously shot — it misses the mark that every book adaptation should aim for. No one could imagine getting a better experience reading a story off a movie screen — with nothing but words projected at 24 frames per second — than they would off a book in their lap. Yet people may very well watch this movie and believe that because it was shot on film it adds something to the book off which it’s based. But the two mediums are not easily compatible. Books can take their time with serious issues because they’re dependent on the reader being more proactive in setting the pace, while films have to get the issues to us through action, make it lifelike, and do it relatively quickly. This film fails on all three counts.
Never Let Me Go, based on British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s book of the same name, imagines a late-20th century England wherein the ethics of human cloning — that is, the clones’ subsequent death by organ harvesting — have been overlooked to make way for the benefits the clones afford the normal public: longer life spans, better health, instant revitalization. Our heroes, a trio of children coming out of the last school to treat clones with the dignity offered normal people, grow up to learn that no matter how well they were educated, the only lesson that really matters is that they are expendable; they will die prematurely, under the knife.
To make issues worse, each child represents a different stage in the process of accepting clone status. There’s Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the resigned frump who dedicates herself to making clone death more comfortable; Ruth (Keira Knightley), the rebel who uses sex to forget about being a clone; and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), the cheerful dope who holds out hope until the end. We peek into their lives at three critical periods, watching them play out more or less normal formative dramas of raging hormones and crushing heartbreaks and finally realize that being created for harvesting has made it all worthless.
The movie’s hoped-for trick is to make us sympathize with their growing pains as we recognize the inevitability of their doom. If we can do this, or if the movie can do it for us, we will see that the children are human despite their genetic redundancy. And then we will understand the point: the soul resides not in our genetics, but in the people we become as we experience life.
Fine point, worth telling, especially with care and heart and artistry. Presumably (I haven’t read the book), Kazuo Ishiguro did, when he wrote Never Let Me Go from scratch. But a film adaptation is a second go-round, and therefore there are two choices: Either follow the novel’s pattern and hope for the best or drastically rearrange the structure and present the novel’s ideas the way a film should, with action. Tricky either way. You can see where the fastidious grunginess of music video director Mark Romanek might really have seemed the ideal style for this ethical parable.
So what has he done with it? He’s told it like a novel, doling out scene after self-contained scene as if they were Ishiguro’s chapters. And he’s shot it in just the way we are accustomed to seeing literature adapted onto the screen. Muted, olive color fills tasteful compositions; understated classical music underscores preprescribed emotional notes; soulful handheld camerawork lingers on visual metaphors (a rusted boat marooned on a beach) long after the point is made and received. Worse, Romanek makes his points early and often yet can’t resist moving at a slogging pace right up to a final scene, in which a voiceover succinctly tells us what we are supposed to have felt.
I can’t say whether the film follows the book to the exact letter, but there is no denying that it plays like a classy novel more than it plays like a movie. I also can’t say whether Ishiguro has written his way into what it means to be human despite being a clone, but Romanek has definitely shot his way into what it means to be a director despite having made one.