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We saw Never Let Me Go last night. I’m sure many of you have read the book but for those of you that haven’t, I can’t say this strongly enough – there is a very significant spoiler in the review below. In fact, somewhat controversially, the film more or less gives away the central mystery in the opening titles. So, proceed with caution.
I’ve really been looking forward to this adaptation. It’s a haunting, disturbing novel, written in a particularly unsettling unreliable narrator’s voice. From the very first page, all kinds of subtle details indicate that there is something deeply wrong with the idyllic reminiscences of Cathy H. The monstrous scenario of children being deliberatly cloned as human organ factories, and assumed to be without souls for the convenience of a society looking the other way, is very powerfully conveyed through typically British understatement and euphemism. "Rather a lot of blood," or "I don’t suppose," or "You hear things…" all have very chilling resonances. Ishiguro is masterly at writing about quiet desperation and loyalty to a flawed system carried too far. In The Remains of the Day, there was a particular incident, where the hero’s father (himself a butler) is dying alone and his son has so internalised the same values that he doesn’t question that his rightful place is waiting on his master. A typical Ishiguro moment that provokes what Heinlein would have called "a cusp of great wrongness" in the reader – a sense that the status quo can’t be allowed to continue unchallenged.
But, of course, in both stories, it does remain unchallenged. The characters are too locked into their prison of tradition, acceptance and duty to challenge even a system that will lead to their painful and untimely deaths. And this, I think, is a huge problem for the movie. Movies need to go somewhere. They need dramatic tension; a sense of the inevitable, unchallenged, does not make for a satisfying cinematic experience, no matter how beautifully acted, lit and photographed (and NLMG is all these things). My own view is that Romaneck never quite overcomes this problem – to my own surprise, I found myself almost wanting to yell at the characters to stand up for themselves.
I’ve probably seen too many action movie trailers. NLMG is caught between arthouse and mainstream cinematic sensibilities. The book is harrowing, but remains at heart a deeply disturbing narrative of ethical dilemmas and ideas. We see the flawed system entirely through Cathy’s eyes – she doesn’t think to challenge it, wouldn’t know how to since it’s the only source of any kind of purpose, status and meaning for a permanently socially excluded character. Like Cathy herself, we are blinded to the obvious questions. The final confrontation with Madame, in which she and Tommy learn at last about the rationale and the background behind Hailsham, lasts a lot longer in the novel and is more of an apologia, though this detracts none of the dramatic power from what immediately follows – it is devastating, both in the book and in the movie.
In a movie, even with a very clear focalising character and voice overs, it’s difficult to remain inside one person’s head. We are observers, and that makes us less tolerant of lacunae in the plot unless we are constantly distracted with action. NLMG is a very static movie. There are no setpieces, no special effects -it looks extremely realistic although it is set in an AU subtly different from the one we know, a clever combination of the most dowdy and depressing elements of the 1940s/50s and the 1970s. Anyone who grew up in England in the 70s and 80s will recognise the scrupulous attention to detail that has gone into the look and feel of the movie, right down to tiny details like correct number plates, cheap plastic menu covers and charity shop junk. Unlike Cathy herself, we see from the start that despite the trappings of a privileged boarding school, these kids are undervalued and feared by society. They will never quite know how to behave, and they’ll always be on the outside looking in with longing eyes.
In the decision to go for mainstream appeal, compromises have inevitably been made. The recruitment of Kiera Knightly is the most high-profile example (in fact, she turned in a better performance than I’d been expecting), but a more subtle decision, and probably a more damaging one to the overall credibility of the film, is the emphasis on the love triangle in the novel rather than its philosophical and moral implications. This is pushed to centre stage with rather more emotional manipulation than it can bear, since it’s a slight, mundane and almost tedious tale even in the original. It is terribly sad in a very ordinary way, and any Doctor Who fan will recognise the kind of narrative devices that signpost this, as if we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves.
I didn’t dislike the film; all three leads are good, Carey Mulligan is outstanding and her big sex scene, when it comes, is a tender and beautiful miracle of loving understatement. But I was surprised to find that at times it came close to boring me. It was so very English, so very tasteful and restrained and faithful to the original – not always a good thing in adaptations. Movies are a very different medium to novels. As their name implies, they carry an expectation that they will go somewhere. Rather like the Tenth Doctor’s anguish in the 2009 Specials, the aforementioned stellar actors only have a set number of expressions to convey their misery , and for even the ardent fan they can become a little tiresome. I’m not sure if anybody has got around to writing NLMG fan fiction, but sometimes it makes better movies than reverent adaptations, and I kept wanting to see some more proactive versions, such as the one where Miss Lucy takes it upon herself to liberate the clone children, or even the story of the rise and fall of Hailsham from Madame’s point of view, taking us deep into the society that spawned this dystopian horror, yet resembles our own in too many respects.
But I’ve probably watched a bit too much Doctor Who. Ishiguro has said that his ambition is to write unfilmable novels. I think he might have succeeded.