Resigned to the Clone Zone

The young stars of Never Let Me Go do as well as they can in a movie that goes nowhere very slowly

Film Literature

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.

Masterpiece or not, I fear the same fate awaits Never Let Me Go, although for quite different reasons. Unlike Joffe’s job on Graham Greene, there’s nothing which strikes one as arbitrary or crude about director Mark Romanek’s handling of Ishiguro. It is nuanced, subtle and slow (boy, is it slow). Rather it is a problem which arises from the medium itself and the presence of starry names. The book concentrates for much longer, apparently, on the three main characters, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, as children at Hailsham, the strait-laced boarding school which, we come to learn, is in fact a very politely organised clone farm full of kids who have been bred in laboratories. The film, however, soon leaves this section behind, in order that we can get to see Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as these characters grown up, wrestling with love and loss, and dealing with the realisation that, just perhaps, the feelings they are experiencing will allow them to live that little bit longer before their time is up. Or, in the parlance of the film, that they may “defer” for a few years before facing “completion”.  

As a result, questions arise which can be easily avoided in the more airtight, imaginary world of a novel. Why, for example, are these poor creatures so docile? Why don’t they simply flee to France on the Eurostar, or at least make for the Lake District? We see one of them driving, so it’s not as though they’ve been left socially unequipped. Why do they seem to accept their fate? You need real restrictions in place for love to become tragic, whether they are provided by social conventions, armed guards or warring teenage gangs. An air of weary resignation doesn’t quite cut it.

The three central performances are as good as they can be with such material. As the troubled Tommy, Andrew Garfield (who was excellent as the aggrieved best friend in The Social Network) provides some arresting moments; his look of confused incomprehension when told another nasty little bit of truth about his “life” is flawless and almost moving. Carey Mulligan’s collection of slightly old-fashioned expressions work well in the deliberately retro atmosphere the film has been given (it takes place, presumably in an alternative universe, in the 1950s through to the ’90s). And Keira Knightley’s essential blankness might well have found its perfect expression as Ruth.  

This is a mournful, careful and gloomy film. Those things needn’t be bad; sometimes they can even be life-affirming and leave you feeling oddly uplifted. But Never Let Me Go is enervating; as I watched, I could almost feel the life being sucked out of me. Which, given the subject matter, might seem strangely appropriate — although it’s not, I imagine, what its makers had in mind.