There’s a scene towards the middle of “Never Let Me Go” where Carey Mulligan’s Kathy and Andrew Garfield’s Tommy meditate on why it was that, as children, art was an activity of such grave importance at the country boarding school where they grew up.
Kathy, prolific in her artistry as a child but thinking little of its overall purpose, is left befuddled while Tommy, who rarely drew as a child but found his voice as he grew older, comes to the conclusion that art is the soul speaking to the world, that art exists so that mankind can express the pleasures and pains that afflict it. Tommy goes on to say that art can’t work without true, honest emotion and that pure art is the sort that can only come from love.
It’s this idea of love exhibited through art that Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go,” based on the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is so firmly rooted in; the idea that art stems from the emotions that can only seemingly come from a true human soul.
Kathy and Tommy, along with Keira Knightley’s Ruth, exist in a world where their purpose is to die for the benefit of others whom they’ll never see. They are Donors, raised from childhood to grow and develop until their late twenties when they will be harvested bit by bit for their organs so that regular humans can have them and live longer, healthier lives.
The concept is cold, which makes it all the more jarring that the world Romanek has created is so warm, rich and, above all else, alive.
As children, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth live in a world ruled by order and predetermination, enslaved in an ignorance more akin to that seen in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave than it is to more modern master/slave dichotomies, positing the question: can one be a slave if he or she has never known freedom?
The journey begins for the three characters as they slowly leave their ‘cave,’ the boarding school Hailsham that governed the better part of their lives. Before long they begin asking a question more characteristic of their regular human counterparts: is there a point to our lives?
As the children grow up they wrestle with the concept of why love exists, or if it does at all, or if it does for them, ultimately attempting to answer these questions through art.
Romanek has built his reputation on art pushed to extremes, featuring a crucified monkey and bondage models in his music video “Closer” for Nine Inch Nails and Jay-Z getting shot in a drive-by in his “99 Problems” video.
With “Never Let Me Go,” Romanek has been given the perfect material to weigh what it is that makes art so human. Every scene is a tableaux carefully constructed to say something new that the characters on screen aren’t already doing. Hailsham is drowned in blues and browns that texture the children’s futures early in life. The hillsides that the older Kathy, Tommy and Ruth visit are yellow with the hope that seems out of reach for their future, and the nights are never completely black, but hiding a navy blue connoting a sort of melancholia over outright sadness.
The visuals of “Never Let Me Go” push toward something more than mere perception, but for experience and cognizance of what a hue can mean for an emotion.
Existentially tragic, the themes of “Never Let Me Go” run dark and dim, but are lifted from total blackness by Mulligan’s nuanced anchor Kathy, a thoughtful Donor whose meditations at film’s end are as chilling as they are pertinent. Garfield’s Tommy is the sheepish force of tension between Ruth and Kathy throughout, whose nuance is startling in it subtlety, the type of performance that needs time to really sink in.
Knightley is given the tougher role to work with as Tommy and Kathy are allowed more time to develop and grow than she is. Yet still, her raven-haired character’s trajectory is perhaps the most desolate of the three, and while the character of little Ruth would have been a write-off in the hands of a lesser actress, Knightley gives her the glow necessary to flourish.
“Never Let Me Go” is a difficult movie, one whose world practically begs to be lived in, which is why it’s all the more surprising that it’s ending comes so abruptly. But, perhaps like its heroes, that’s the point; it creates a world you want to stay in, to live in, and explore endlessly. Yet, as soon as you’re finally starting to grasp what it’s all about, it’s over sooner than you’d ever hoped.
What did you think of “Never Let Me Go”? Was it as rich for you as it was for me? How did it stack up to the novel? Let me know below!
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