We All Complete…
In a key scene of Mark Romanek’s 2010 adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go. Sally Hawkins’ Miss Lucy character talks to the children of her class at the Hailsham boarding school. She reveals information about the world that is out there for people who will actually have lives that are extraordinary. For the children she’s talking to, she reveals that their fates is already set as she heartbreakingly reveals what they won’t be able to do. They won’t go to other countries to live a life that could be fantastic or mundane. They won’t be able to reach middle-age and they wouldn’t have things having children. After that scene, Miss Lucy is never seen again as she prepares these children of what to expect.
It’s a very understated and poignant scene that allows the audience to reveal the world these children would face in a film that bends all sorts of genres. While the concept is one that is expected in a sci-fi film. It’s also a British period drama set in three different decades where time is off as although it’s set in certain decades. The look of where these three individuals seem to be in come from another time. This is what Ishiguro, Romanek, and the film’s screenwriter Alex Garland goes for in this film that defies not just conventional storytelling but also the rules of what is expected in a melodrama with a sci-fi concept.
Never Let Me Go is the story of three young children who live in an alternate universe where they have no parents and no family background. They live in this boarding school with other children that is like a lot of boarding schools of Great Britain with the only difference is that they have no knowledge of the outside world. Instead, they’re expected to grow up as organ donors for the people in the outside world once they become young adults and expected to die after donating their third or fourth organ. That is essentially the premise of the film as it would be told in a traditional three-act structure in three different time periods. All of it is told from one of the film’s key protagonists in Kathy H., played with such radiance from Carey Mulligan, whose reflective voice-over narration has her recalling her life as the film begins near the end as she watches her longtime childhood friend Tommy, played with great humility by Andrew Garfield, set to donate another organ.
The film’s simple three-act structure is set into three different years in three different decades as Kathy H., Tommy, and Ruth would encounter the world around them as a love triangle would occur in the middle of the film. It begins in the 1970s but through Romanek’s lush yet evocative direction. It feels like it’s set in an entirely different period like the 1950s or 1960s due to its look and the way the kids wear their school uniforms. In this school, we’re introduced to the young Kathy H., Tommy, and Ruth, as they’re singing the school song in front of its headmistress Miss Emily, played by the great Charlotte Rampling. Also there is the new teacher Miss Sally who arrives to the school as an outsider.
While the film is told largely on Kathy’s perspective including the first act, the first act is seen from the eyes of Miss Sally. During a game where a ball is knocked out of the school grounds, Miss Sally asks the girls why Tommy didn’t get the ball as the girls believe that everything outside the school grounds is forbidden due to legends told about what might’ve happened. Miss Sally would be more than just some observer who watches everything that happens but also the kind of person that Kathy H. and Tommy seems to find some form of parental guidance in them. Sally Hawkins’ understated performance as Miss Sally has all of the right touches as she leaves a very big impression in the first act.
Throughout the first act, it is clear that the relationship between Kathy and Tommy is a special one as Kathy is Tommy’s one true friend. Notably as she would often help him in class or comfort him when he’s not picked to play with the other boys as he screams and accidentally hits Kathy. There’s also Ruth, who is Kathy’s best friend, who often wonders why Kathy is so interested in someone like Tommy. Despite his talent in drawing elephants, though he doesn’t submit his work for the school fair known as the Gallery, Ruth is quite dismissive of him until later in the first act as it’s clear she does like him.
One of the things that Tommy purchases at the fair that he gives Kathy is a cassette tape of a fictional jazz singer named Judy Bridgewater whose rendition of Luther Dixon’s song Never Let Me Go becomes this emotional importance to Kathy. Even as she tries to cope with Tommy and Ruth’s relationship as she would use this song to comfort her once she leaves Hailsham with Ruth and Tommy to go to the cottages in the second act as the relationship becomes very complicated. What is more surprising that this rendition of the song (actually sung by jazz singer Jane Monheit) was released in 2000 sounds like something that could’ve been recorded in the 1960s which adds to Romanek’s approach to playing with time.
Another key element to the Romanek’s abstract approach to time is Adam Kimmel’s lush and rapturous cinematography. Kimmel provides a look that is quite different though his choice of palettes do allow each section of the film a chance to have very similar looks. It’s just that the mood for each act in the film is very different as the first act’s exterior and some of its interiors are much lighter in look and tone. Yet, the first act sort of ends with an older Kathy packing her things as she is about to leave for the cottage with Ruth and Tommy.
While the first two acts and some of the third has this naturalistic yet dream-like look that is filled with shades of tinted yellow and green to play up this world that seems out of step with the times. By the time it goes into the second act, the look is a bit darker due to the new surroundings the three embark in where their friendship and relationship would eventually splinter. Going to these remote cottages with other kids from other boarding schools where they would decide the roles they would play. The three hear about a rumor about a temporary reprieve for couples from two of the cottages residents which would further fracture the friendship of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth.
Particularly as Ruth and Tommy’s relationship becomes more sexual with Ruth, played by Keira Knightley as the adult counterpart, being more controlling as she desires to see if there is someone who looks like her. A trip to a seaside town would only further Ruth’s anger as she would take it out on Kathy who is already upset by Ruth’s very sexual relationship with Tommy. With Tommy being more confused about everything including the rumored deferrals, this would allow Kathy to break from the trio to go on her own as it is her story. By leaving the cottages earlier than expected, she takes on the role of a carer to help care and comfort the donors who are expected to die as they donate. Her departure would officially end Tommy and Ruth’s relationship as they all drift away.
Whereas the look and feel of the first act set in the late 1970s felt like it’s all set in the 1950s-1960s. The second act set in the mid-80s while it has a tone that is reminiscent of 1970s cinema. Particularly with Kimmel’s more hand-held photography and a look that is greyer once it reaches into the seaside town and places that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy venture into. The coloring becomes darker while Romanek’s unconventional approach to abstract time setting is furthered by a TV program that the residents of the cottage watch. This TV program that Ruth would be influenced by in her affections towards Tommy seems like a show that comes from the 1990s rather than the 1980s.
When the film moves into the third act set in the mid-1990s, time is once again is set in a world where it feels off. This time around, the look is bleaker and everything else looks like it’s not 1990 but rather the 2000s. Notably in its opening wide shot of a building where grey skies are up in the air as the hospitals Kathy works at has this very futuristic feel. While the car she drives seems to come from something that is the 1980s or the 1990s as she sports a very different look that is miles away from her long hair look back in her days at Hailsham and at the cottages.
Through the narration, Kathy has become a woman who doesn’t dwell on the past and has become content with her role despite having to deal with all of the horrifying aftermath of seeing the donors she care for die. Eventually, her past does come back when she sees a profile on Ruth as she is about to embark on another donation soon. With Ruth nearing completion, the two old friends reunite as it would eventually lead to a full-on reunion with Tommy where all three learn about Hailsham‘s closing adding to their plight as they have no past to go back to. It only adds to the sense of who these three are as the already frail Ruth wants to make amends to both Kathy and Tommy by giving an address to the gallery madam who had been looking at the artwork students had back in school for those possible deferrals.
With Ruth gone and on her way to completion, Kathy and Tommy are able to express their feelings for another as they visit the Madame where they would later meet a surprise visitor in Miss Emily. In hope they would get some sort of deferrals as Tommy reveals his artwork that he’s done since childhood, Miss Emily and the Madame would reveal the harsh truths about the gallery. Notably as it is equally heartbreaking for all involved as Miss Emily reveals what happened to Hailsham as well as the fact that she felt that all of these children in that school including Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth were indeed human and more than just the organ donors they were set out to be. For Tommy and Kathy, the truth was more than they could bear as Tommy would scream in agony in a way that he hadn’t screamed since he was a boy.
The rumor of this supposed chance of immunity that drives the characters to play with their fates would only add to the fact that they’re indeed stuck as what Miss Sally had told them that one particular rainy day in a classroom early in the film. What transpires is this heartbreaking moment as the film goes back to the way it begins where Kathy would see Tommy embark on another donation as it’s clear what is to happen. The film ends with Kathy looking ahead in a world that is very modern to everyone else. Once again, time is off but in many ways as Kathy decides to take steps for her own fate as she defiantly says “we all complete”.
It’s a line that encompass all that happens in life. “We all complete”. A person starts out as a child and through some form of proper care without fates intervening, they become adults. As adults, the only thing that is ahead is death but in the case of Kathy H., Tommy, and Ruth. They’re unable to have the kind of lives the people that most people will have and grow old. That doesn’t really mean their lives were still extraordinary despite the circumstances they had to endure in the short period of time.
Through all of its heartbreak, evocative direction, Rachel Portman’s captivating orchestral score, and an enriching ensemble cast. Never Let Me Go is melodrama at its finest. Without going overboard to territory that could’ve made the film be saccharine in what‘s expected in melodrama. It’s a film that does more than what a melodrama can do while infusing it with a sci-fi premise that allows the audience to connect with its characters. Even at the most heartbreaking moments of the film that allows Never Let Me Go to be placed as one of the great romantic-weepies.
© thevoid99 2012
Yeah, I thought this was a captivating piece of cinema. I thought the concept was haunting, while the execution was excellent. That last shot...as seen in the pic above...is as beautiful as it is unnerving.
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