Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan: Wrestling with love and loss — or just drippy?
A few hours after I'd attended the screening of Never Let Me Go, the much anticipated screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's bleak novel about humanity and genetics, I caught by chance a TV commercial for the film. A montage of romantic, heartbreaking moments featuring attractive young people in soft focus showed that this was a movie which was obviously being marketed as a straight-up love story starring three modishly popular young actors. The distributors can't be blamed for taking this approach — how otherwise would you get the non-reading audience in if you attempted to convey more fully that this was, in fact, a meditative, moody film about human clones who have been created solely to donate their kidneys and who may or may not have souls? It's a tough one for the publicity department. Rename it The Fake Also Love? Or Clone Zone? Best perhaps to keep to the script and instead make it look hippy and drippy.
The ad reminded me of the recent publicity campaign for Tim Burton's version of the musical Sweeney Todd, which managed to avoid the use of a single song, lest horror fans and Johnny Depp devotees were turned off. It was a bit of a cheat, as was evidenced by the adolescent groans of realisation in the audience when Johnny, covered in blood and guts, suddenly opened his mouth and made for the high Cs. I suspect that those unfamiliar with Ishiguro's book (and in movie audience terms that means virtually everybody), lured in by the prospect of some nicely shot emotional entanglement, will be equally perplexed and disappointed when it dawns that this is neither one thing nor the other: too lyrical by half to be a science-fiction movie, too unreal and off-kilter to satisfy as a love story.
The book, which I haven't read, is held by some to be Ishiguro's masterpiece. It's a cliché that second-rate books make the best films; the follow-up cliché is to quote Brideshead Revisited as an example. But you only need one example to prove that actually, it's not true. I would say that, of recent screen adaptations, Stephen Daldry's The Hours was a pretty much faultless rendering of Michael Cunningham's brilliant deconstruction of Mrs Dalloway. David Lean captured everything of Great Expectations in 1946. And of course there's Brighton Rock — a great novel made into a classic film the following year by John Boulting. That has just had a second makeover, although blink and you will miss it. The director, Rowan Joffe, has altered some of the characters and updated the narrative from the hole-in-the-wall, pokey 1930s to a Mod-infested 1960s, for no good reason that's discernible. As such, it appears on our screens as an afterthought, de trop, and a week after release was already sinking with all hands.