Are we ever satisfied with the way we define love? Ask yourself this question. Cut out the entire philosophical dialog-pedia such as, “Love is friendship” or “Love is when you don’t know you are in love”. Think deep and you will come to realize that love can not only be not defined but can also be an emotion which you know intuitively but you don’t know why you know it. The question that lurks at the core of Mark Romanek’s hauntingly beautiful Never Let Me Go is a difficult one, to begin with. It’s not difficult in the sense that it can be or can’t be answered; it is difficult because it HAS to be asked.
Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling (and said to be unfilmable) novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go begins with a school called Hailsham where kids are told that they are special and that Hailsham is a special school. Kids here are required to swipe in their attendances with the help of a metal wrist band. Intriguing? Even more so because the year is 1978 and a title card suggests that breakthrough in medical science came when it was discovered in 1952 that human life can be extended beyond the normal 100 years. We are introduced to the three principal characters – Tommy, a lonely boy who finds it difficult to mingle with his friends; Kathy, a girl who takes a liking to Tommy because he behaves strangely; Ruth, a manipulative girl who decides to come in between Kathy and Tommy for seemingly no particular reason.
The children of Hailsham are brought up like normal children – they are given food, clothing and shelter. They are taught everything that normal kids should learn, they are taught to actively take part in arts. But, there is one exception – a rule is imposed on all of them that nobody should cross the school boundaries. The world outside is dark and violent, they are told. As any normal kid would, they believe in the stories. There is no reason for them to question these rules. Tell me, if you were taught right since your childhood that a horse is called a rabbit, you will definitely call it a rabbit – unless somebody tells you otherwise. Anyway, the kids grow up and leave Hailsham and move to a new place – ‘The Cottages’. It is here where they start questioning their choices and the reasons why they are called ‘special’. I don’t want to give out any spoilers and ruin the show for you. Let me be extra careful here — when our protagonists get into the ‘conflict’, they do not understand what to make of their existence. Slowly, Kathy makes peace with everything but Tommy is devastated. Everything he has been living for is a lie. I can’t even begin to imagine how nightmarish it would be for me if everybody around me told me tomorrow that we all are not called humans but “zodpackia”. (Don’t make too much of the word, I’m just giving you a hypothetical scenario)
Andrew Garfield’s performance can be described in one and only one word – heartbreaking. Piece by piece, we see him disintegrate into nothing, literally. Physically delving into the role, Garfield creates one of the most endearing characters on screen in recent times. Nothing I say will be a perfect measure of what Garfield brings to his performance. He is as vulnerable and as earnest as a kid sitting next to you in the exams asking you the answer to question number 5 because if he doesn’t answer that particular thing, he’s going to fail. (Please don’t assume that I am making a lousy comparison.) Tommy is searching for answers and he is pretty confident that he has it all figured out. Just watch the scene in which Garfield lets out a wail of anguish at nothing in particular when he realizes that he has been denied something which he deserves so rightfully. It might have been a loud, uneven scene had it been in a different film or performed by a different actor. Garfield makes the pain his own.
Carey Mulligan portrays Kathy as a person who has a sensible understanding of what’s going on around her, even if she believes some of the stories which she has heard at Hailsham. “My name is Kathy H.” she says and thus begins the film. Take one look at her expression and listen to the lines as she speaks and you’ll know why she is one of the brightest talents to have emerged from British cinema. Kathy is, let’s say, too mature for her age and Mulligan nails it by going a bit further and portraying Kathy as someone who can accept defeat and still be satisfied that she ‘lived’ to accept defeat. Keira Knightley essays the role of the manipulative Ruth, who decides she must love Tommy even if she doesn’t understand why she has to love Tommy. Or anyone. Didn’t I just tell you that love is a strange emotion? Strangely, I found myself sympathizing with the Ruth character even when I knew that she had to do something with the gradual separation of Tommy and Kathy. I believe you will too. And it is to the abundantly talented actress’ credit that she doesn’t make Ruth the caricature that she could have so easily been.
One word about the child actors Charlie Rowe, Isobel Meikle-Small and Ella Purnell who portray Tommy, Kathy and Ruth respectively – that their faces resemble so much of the adult actors isn’t the only thing to be admired here. These kids actually become Tommy, Kathy and Ruth when they grow up. May be it is the other way around – because Garfield, Mulligan and Knightley definitely behave like these kids once they start playing their adult versions on screen.
The screenplay is by Alex Garland, the man behind the ingenious Sunshine, which was cruelly overlooked when it released in 2007. Garland distinctly separates the two facets upon which the premise of Ishiguro’s novel is based – love and death – and then makes us question these themes, about what really are our choices. There is a slight sci-fi bend in this love story and thankfully nothing is overdone. What I mean to say exactly is there are no futuristic machines, no jargon-spewing people and no undecipherable mess. Garland is not an ordinary writer; I never had any doubt about that. But, when he hangs up his boots (which I hope he never does), Never Let Me Go will feature prominently as one of his best works ever. This is Mark Romanek’s debut film as a director and I feel Romanek’s importance as a director has been established, given that he has an impressive number of music videos on his resume. He is a director with a vision. Going for restrained shots and a bleak setting and loads of melancholia, Romanek delivers a spectacle of a movie aided by Garland’s brave and uncompromising screenplay.
You may have seen love stories but none as profound as this, none as unsettling as this. And it is not disturbing because of some gratuitous elements; it is disturbing because you will have to answer the fundamental question posed by this movie. You know the answer. It isn’t a puzzle but sometimes, the truth isn’t meant to liberate.
Often done to death and diabetically sweet, love stories are a tricky genre. Hopefully, the times are changing. Because after 2009’s excellent (500) Days of Summer, we not only have a great love story but also something that can be hailed as one of the best films of the year gone by.
P.S. – There is a solo-violin piece in the movie called ‘We All Complete’ by Rachel Portman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since I heard it.