Opening the London Film Festival this year was Never Let Me Go, a film based on the award-winning novel by Kazuro “Remains of the motherfucking Day Beeyatch!” Ishiguro and starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield.
I’ve never really understood the point of Garfield (the actor, I mean, not the cat. I absolutely understand the point of the cat..) He only seems to have one technique in his acting repertoire: the whinge. He whinged his way through The Social Network, whinged his way through The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus and whinges his way through this. He’s basically the acting equivalent of Cher Lloyd.
The film follows the short lives of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth; three friends who have grown up at Hailsham, an elite and ultra-protective English boarding school that has totally isolated them from the outside world.
Now, time out… at this point we’re going to have to go into the plot in a little bit more detail. There won’t be any spoilers exactly, but I will be talking about some of the background and events that are revealed in the opening 30 minutes. When I saw the film, I knew absolutely nothing about it, beyond the fact that it was set in a boarding school and would probably feature Keira Knightley pouting a lot. There’s something very artful about the way Alex Garland’s screenplay slowly unfurls its narrative and I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you.
So it’s up to you really. You can either read on and I promise I won’t ruin it entirely, or you can take this opportunity to bail out.
As they grow older, it dawns on the children that Hailsham is no ordinary boarding school and they are no ordinary students. They are in fact (and this where it all gets a bit ‘Red Dwarf’) human clones who’ve been engineered solely for the purpose of harvesting their organs for medical science.
We’re told at the start that, thanks to a miraculous breakthrough at the end of WW2, all human disease has been eradicated and life expectancy has soared above 100. All that’s required is a steady stream of hearts, lungs and brains supplied by a specially bred population of semi-willing donors.
This is obviously not that new an idea, having been explored in numerous sci-fi movies in the past. In fact, it’s more or less exactly the same premise of Michael Bay’s 2005 blockbuster The Island (and anything Michael Bay is capable of imagining is, by definition, entirely lacking in originality or artistic merit). However, the thing that makes this film so interesting, is that it neither looks, feels, sounds nor tastes like a sci-fi in any way.
It’s set in a 1970’s England that actually looks closer to the 50’s. This is a provincial, pastoral and parochial world where the grass is always green and the sky is always grey – filled with ominously dark thunder clouds, pregnant with meaning and ready to rain their contents down on our heads at any minute - like some kind of metaphorical afterbirth. It’s a bit like watching an episode of Heartbeat where they’ve erased Nick Berry and replaced him with a gloomy sense of foreboding.
The other thing that sets this film apart, is that it's characters are so passively accepting of their fate - there are no daring escape attempts or final showdowns with maniacal scientists. Instead the donors are just sadly resigned to the fact that their role in life is to give their organs away to the state, one by one. Until eventually, usually in their mid-twenties, they pass away or ‘complete’.
It’s possible that Ishiguro means this to be read as some kind of clever parable for western civilisation: a satirical right-wing attack on the concept of tax perhaps? Or alternatively, maybe it’s meant to be an extreme vegetarian allegory highlighting the plight of the broccoli – forced to give away it’s delicious florets until it too ‘completes’ and goes slowly mouldy at the bottom of my fridge.
I thought the film was fantastic, with understated yet incredibly moving performances from almost everyone involved (not you Garfield!) It also makes the point that, although the donors are forced to condense their lives into a tragically short space of time, they’re not really so very different to the rest of us. We’re all going to die eventually, that’s an inescapable fact, and so should really be making the most of what little time we’ve been afforded.
So basically, if you’ve been thinking about buying a new Ferrari or fucking your secretary or something, you should just go ahead and do it while you have the chance. Have fun.