Never Let Me Go (2010)

Poster for the film, Never Let Me Go (2010).

“Who told you these stories?

Everybody knows them.

And how do you know they’re true?”

In my earlier review of The Ballad of Narayama, I made a subtle reference to this film, and so I decided I should write about it as, in many ways, this film is a spiritual descendant of that film, touching on themes of mortality, the often invisibilized costs of scientific and medical progress, and the “sacrifices” demanded of the less fortunate and privileged. In doing so, the film sheds light on how the predominant narratives in society attempt to answer these questions.

In other reviews of the film, there tends to be much focus on its sci-fi aspects, particularly its plot twist, but in my opinion, those elements merely serve as abstractions for the weightier issues that the author is grappling with. Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of the novel on which the film is based, has stated that the story is not so much about the dangers or ethics of biotechnology per se, but its instrumentality in humans’ attempts to confront or avoid mortality.

There is an awkward scene where the three protagonists, recently graduated from their secluded boarding school in Hailsham, have their first experience at a restaurant. The director, Mark Romanek, has fun with this scene by inverting the common immigrant experience of being a foreigner in a strange land by telling it through the perspective of characters who are both white and English-speaking, yet outsiders in their own country. The significance of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Japanese-British heritage is not lost on me here.

This leads to my secondary and more critical reaction to the film, in the context of the decision to tell the story with an all-white cast. The performances of the three actors in the leading roles, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan, are extraordinary and poignant, but is the whitewashing another form of abstraction? What role does it play in telling the story and conveying its moral issues to the audience?

Ostensibly, the purpose of literature is to challenge our thinking and to help readers inhabit other perspectives. Roger Ebert writes of the film, “If you can walk through this plot without tripping over parallels to our own society and educational systems, you’re more sure-footed than I.” But I’ve come to believe that the function of literature is primarily to serve as a form of social currency (if not mere escapism). For example, when Robert F. Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in his famous speech in Indianapolis, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he was claiming authority as a public figure stemming from an intellectual lineage descending from the ancient Greeks. It’s the same reason we are taught the classics in college. Discussing literature is a form of connection; discussing classic literature is a signal of elite status, of specialized knowledge.

This leads me back to my question about the purpose of these kinds of stories. When people watch this film, will they think about the ways that capitalism doubly exploits us for both consumerism and extraction and then discards us when our bodies are exhausted and spent (a point made when the children excitedly attend a market of secondhand and mostly worthless goods)? And what do people do with that knowledge? Will they make any connections to Indigenous residential schools or other historical or current injustices? Sadly, I don’t think so. I think the tendency for audiences is to containerize these stories, to recognize the suffering on screen, but not to extend that recognition to the injustices occurring within the world we live in.

The impacts of this story (both the novel and the film) were always felt more in my heart than my head. The ending of the book, in particular, left me with a feeling of emptiness and melancholy that I’ve only come to understand years later. Whereas most dystopian science fiction usually features a hero or underground element that rises up against overwhelming institutional oppression, in this story there is no hero or savior. There is no hope. In many ways, this is a psychological story about the ways that we all awkwardly grapple with the confines of the unjust systems in which we live, usually turning against and hurting others along the way. The story doesn’t sit well with us because we are accustomed to telling narratives about ourselves as moral and free agents, as always triumphing over evil and adversity. How do we sit with the fact that no metaphorical Superman is going to swoop down and save us? How do we sit with our complicity in genocide? Do we keep telling stories until the end?

Ebert: 4/4
My rating: 8/10