We are forced to confront the importance of grabbing the life and love (if we are lucky) we have now
Kazuo Ishiguro published his novel Never Let Me Go in 2005 and the film adaptation is just about to be released in the UK. I urge anybody to see it despite the disturbing and bleak subject matter – premature death, nasty hospital operations, stolen lives – especially as a Valentine date movie.
Critics at the time of the novel’s publication – it was Booker shortlisted – acclaimed the novel as a brave, haunting and dispassionate attempt to dramatize the Larkin-esque idea that all we have is life and love and never enough time. The novel explores – with exquisitely chilling and unsentimental tension – the love triangle between three teenage boarders at a peculiar English boarding school called Hailsham as they slowly become self-aware of their awful secret fate (no spoiler here).
The novel is a stoical and harrowing examination of the human condition; as the reader slowly understands their cruel fate and why they have so little time left to enjoy sex, friendship and any conception of happiness with the future, we – the reader – are forced to confront the importance of grabbing the life and love (if we are lucky) we have now, before we too step out of the fragile and brittle triangle of love, life and our own mortality.
The film version has been directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by Ishiguro’s novelist and screenwriter friend Alex Garland (The Beach). When I spoke with Ishiguro before a screening of the film, he was very evidently happy with the result of Garland’s adaptation (Ishiguro was co-producer) which begins as another period English boarding school movie set in an enclosed world where the dark and emotional music builds up like a late Mahler symphony (as in The Remains of the Day) into a very different and unexpected film about the meaning of mortality, sex, art, loss, jealousy, love, fate, and what it is to be human. And face our own inevitable fate.
The filming has the visceral and haunting emotional monochrome feel of such Ian McEwan adaptations as The Comfort of Strangers; it has a cast led by Carey Mulligan (An Education) who is moving and convincing as Kathy (who enrols as a 'carer', although this does nothing to halt her own tragic destiny) and she is backed up by other excellent performances by Keira Knightly (who is better in this than in Atonement), Charlotte Rampling and Andrew Garfield. It’s very much an all British production, directed beautifully with clinical un-ironic precision and deliberately monotone understatement.
There is absolutely nothing Hollywood about the ending: it is awful, exquisite and utterly unsentimental in a way that many US critics found just too much just as our more serious critics here often find the saccharine, formulaic ingredients of many Hollywood rom-coms unpalatable (although not our Disciminator, Alex Tome, who has just – in a rare excursion into his film tastes – outed himself as a die-hard romcom lover).
This is not a movie that tries to be about anything – other than the ineffable and tragic nature of all our lives
It came as no surprise after the screening that Ishiguro confirmed that – following screenings in America – the the final ending was added which included a human 'this-is-what-it-is-all-about' voice-over that helps to give the film some sort of final resolution.
Yet the reviews have been polarised and mixed, especially in the US. While the New York Times liked it, they found it almost too agonisingly precious, too painfully beautiful. Papers like US Today simply found it ‘slow moving’; Newsweek liked its visual beauty but found the characters ‘flattened into a plot’; and Time NY complained that ‘a very fine book has been denuded of its richness, leaving only dull Oscar bait in its wake’.
In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw praised the film's ‘thoughtful restraint and literate dialogue’ but went onto say that it is ‘too tasteful to be scary, and yet too contrived and unreal to be tragic’. The worst review I could find was from the Huffington Post, whose reviewer described it as a 'staid, lifeless tale that never talks about what it's about, or at least not enough to provoke deep thoughts on the subject. Deep sleep is more like it'.
It is when I read such reviews that I sigh and am so mercifully thankful that I no longer live in LA, where bashing intelligent British movies because you simply don't understand them – or want to even try and understand something that has no black or white literal 'meaning' – has long been a populist media or bloggers sport. Such reviews miss the point. This is not a movie that tries to be about anything – other than the ineffable and tragic nature of all our lives.
Although described as a sci-fi movie, its themes and concerns are timeless and universal. Although Never Let Me Go is ostensibly about premature death, nasty medical operations and an Orwellian medical police network, it is actually a powerful and romantic love story – which is why I especially recommend it for 14th February. In short, it is a film that re-affirms the irrationality of life and love; a film that asks a few awkward and unexpected questions but offers no easy or comfortable answers.
Martin Amis once observed that the best date movie ever made was The Exorcist as anybody viewing it with you would never want to go home alone that night. Never Let Me Go offers the same post viewing impulse: you literally do not want to let the film go. Or the person sitting next to you.