Never Let Me Go

SPOILERS!  If you haven’t read Never Let Me Go, or want to see the film, be forewarned…

On Thursday night I was privileged to be among the audience for a preview showing of Never Let Me Go at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, part of the Leeds International Film Festival 2010.  Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (pipped to the Booker in 2005 by John Banville’s tedious The Sea) and directed by Mark Romanek, the film isn’t on general release until the new year, but following its UK premiere at the London festival in October it was showing twice at LIFF10.  As someone who’d read the book and kept tabs on the film’s progress, my expectations ran high.  That they were mostly met and occasionally exceeded is an indicator of how much I enjoyed it.

Enjoyed is perhaps the wrong word for a piece of delicately understated tragedy.  The horrific truths of Ishiguro’s dystopian fictive space lie just under the surface.  The narrative arc of the film is a process of splintering the artifice that masks this truth from the audience, cracking it slowly but surely to reveal the discomfiting facts that lie beneath.

The novel bore (a quick, easy and overly simplistic) comparision to Viriginia Woolf in places, and in that sense the film was always going to struggle; not a great deal actually happens in front of the reader/cameras; huge amounts are implied and the reader was expected to fill the gaps.  The film has to make some of it a little more explicit; the shots of surgery, for example, have to happen onscreen lest the audience begin to doubt that any of it is real (something readers are left alone to decide about, I suppose).  The inevitable filling in of some of the bigger gaps of invisible stuff make the film easier to watch than the book was to read from a following-what’s-going-on point of view.

The fabulous Carey Mulligan, who seems able to elicit sympathy just by glancing in the direction of the camera,  (Geeks having a “Where have I see her before?” moment, she was Sally Sparrow in the Dr Who episode “Blink”), does exactly that for most of the time.  We’re *supposed* to like her, identify with her, and she hits it out of the park.  If you can make it through this film without experiencing the irrational, impulsive urge to scoop her up and magically make the nasty things go away, you are dead inside.

Certainly there are plenty who will revel in Knightley’s casting as Ruth; manipulative, backstabbing, desperate to appear as if she has some genuine contrition and in the same moment knowing she has none.  All the same, her presence is more distracting than anything; she’s too pretty, too noticeable, too much of a name for this film, all angular cheekbones and ostentatious fringe.

Beautifully shot at some well-chosen locations, an alternative reality is created that is at turns both ultra-modern and strangely ancient.  60s furniture and ageing, rusting Volvos clash with the clean, crisp, sterile shots of the operating theatre and, rumbling in the background, the knowledge that this world departed from our own somewhere around the invention of cloning for organ transplant.

That the film just about manages to suppress the ungainly, less-than-entirely-plausible science fiction is a triumph in itself; Ishiguro managed it in print by wrapping us up in a suspension of disbelief in the way that a good novel can, simply through total immersion in the emotional life of our narrator.  A film will always struggle to put us so far inside a narrator’s head, but instead it sweeps us up in a world that is well-crafted, elegantly filmed and, through the steady drip-feed of new clues as to exactly what is going on, engrossing.

The child actors do well, and the transition between Isobel Meikle-Small and Carey Mulligan was so smooth as to be slightly startling.  Rachel Portman’s score didn’t bring a great deal to the party, I felt; more often than not it did exactly what you expected it to.  Not a problem, but perhaps a missed opportunity.  That said, I’ve been obsessing over Jon Brion soundtracks lately, and the rest of the world tends to pale in comparison…

Lastly, a word about the Hyde Park Picture House.  Built in 1918, as far as I know it hasn’t shut its doors since and is a beautiful treasure, a relic of the time when cinemas such as these would have been commonplace; single screen, red velvet curtains, balcony and all.  I saw Gonzo there one wet afternoon when I should have been studying John Rawls.  It’s a fabulous little place and I hope it prospers for years to come, principally so that I can continue to go along as often as I can get back to Leeds!

Never Let Me Go is on general release from 14th January 2011 in the UK.  I shall be going again.

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