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Thursday, February 17, 2011

 

Mumview: Never Let Me Go

Brief summary

Okay. I'm going to break with reviewing manners and say what the 'secret' is. I did that once before because I thought the movie deserved to be spoiled, but that's not the case here: this is a remarkable film that I think I'll never forget. It's simply that the 'secret' of the story is not the secret of this film's power. There's really no point keeping it hidden, so I'm just going to talk about it so I can talk about it properly.

Okay, you were warned.

*looks around*

Are they gone? Okay, here I go.

In an alternative present, a 'medical breakthrough' has been found that massively increases lifespans - for most people. For the 'donor children' of Hailsham and other institutions like it, life will end in their twenties when they 'complete' after their first, or second, or third, or fourth organ donation. We follow the story of Kathy H., her lost love Tommy and Ruth, the girl who wins him away from Kathy for a time as they live out their brief span - before the donations begin...


Does it work the way it should?

Compelled organ donation is a small but definite subclass of story. (One that my current novel treats of, in fact, and which I shall hopefully finish once I'm getting more sleep: writing a novel is, it turns out, a massive feat of memory, and one that right now I don't quite think I have enough mental RAM for.) On one level it's very simple: it's a story of slavery, of utter disempowerment, and one can go the Michael Bay route and tell a simple yarn of rebellion. Apparently some critics have been irritated by the lack of rebelliousness our fragile heroes show - but frankly I'm startled they'd miss the point that badly.

We live in a disempowered world, a world ruled by commerce and corporations, where serfdom takes many forms. Given a big enough predicament, a faceless and constant enough oppression, and we often do nothing more than try to enjoy what drops of pleasure we can catch out of life while we still have it. In an early scene, the children at Hailsham school are wild with excitement to be delivered a 'bumper crop' of goods to buy, goods that we the audience can see is a collection of worthless, broken junk, the detritus that nobody else wants becoming their festival. That's the film. Never Let Me Go is a reflection on mortality, not an adventure story, and the characters' docility - a passive acceptance of their fate combined with an ever-present hope that they might be able to postpone the inevitable just a little longer - is born less of weakness than of a lifelong despair so deep they can barely see it. The performances from Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and an unusually unHollywoodish turn from Keira Knightley are all delicate and strong, conveying a perfect mix of unspoiled, innocent hope and helpless resignation.

The visuals are almost another character in their own right, and add to the film immeasurably. It's full of beauty: the beauty of the world, and particularly the beauty of England - the real England, or at least the real rural England of rain-soft skies and damp wellingtons and knitted hats and green, tree-fringed fields. It's a world that exists beyond the characters, that contains them but dwarfs them, but is so full of beauty that it's anguishingly clear why it would be so hard to leave it.

Naturalism is a constant companion, but at the same time, we see the world only as a collection of places: society is absent from this story, present only in the heavy hand it lays upon the children's necks. Just occasionally we glimpse it through the weird, upside-down view 'ordinary' people take of the donor children, so normal to themselves, so alien to others, but for the most part, the world is an unmediated place, strangely vivid in its emptiness, beyond anyone's reach.


Ready for this?

I haven't read Ishiguro's original novel so I can't comment on how good an adaptation it is, but on its own merits, it's a film full of quiet power. I went in carefully avoiding the spoilers, but in fact there's no particular reason to, as all the revelations were pretty guessable from the outset - but the important thing is that this is a film where guessing the revelations doesn't matter. From corner to corner, the screen is filled with inevitability: it's all about knowing what's coming and being unable to prevent it.


Life among the groundlings

The babies were not the only ones crying by the end.

It's a bleak story by any standards, but there's something particularly tragic about it from my new perspective: this is a story of uncherished children, children that are not loved, children that are not protected. They can love each other, and dream of their love having the power to protect each other at least a little bit, but the donor children are utter orphans, devoid even of normal parents, never mind a society.


So, any good?

Oh my goodness yes. This is a short review, partly because there's a limit to how much I can discuss it but largely because I feel a bit speechless. This is a painful film but nonetheless a life-affirming one, haunting and elegiac and beautiful.

Comments:
That's the film. Never Let Me Go is a reflection on mortality, not an adventure story, and the characters' docility - a passive acceptance of their fate combined with an ever-present hope that they might be able to postpone the inevitable just a little longer - is born less of weakness than of a lifelong despair so deep they can barely see it.

I find your review very interesting, especially in light of a discussion of literature we were having over on Slacktivist. Someone complained about reading "despairing" books with "downer" endings -- 1984 being one of the books specifically mentioned.

I made a argument there which is quite similar to the argument that I see you making here [feel free to tell me if I am missing the point or getting it wrong] that the despair of 1984, like the passivity of the characters in this film, was an inextricable part of the story.

Better yet, it is a central component to the story. 1984 is set in a world where the kyriarchy is able to maintain its power precisely because most people live in a state of narcotized despair. This movie describes a world which in which passivity is inculcated into the very bones of these characters. They could not be "heroic" and "adventurous" and be the persons whose story we are following.

I actually think that there is a deep political significance to the fact that we, in our culture, seem to find only the stories of the brave adventurers interesting. Because by training our eyes, our interest and our sympathies only on larger than life characters we turn them away from real pain and suffering going on all around us.

At least, that is how I understand it.
 
>>>Because by training our eyes, our interest and our sympathies only on larger than life characters we turn them away from real pain and suffering going on all around us.

Yes, wanting a happy ending - or at least some hope - in your fiction is totally the same as lacking empathy. Okay, so I'm selfish, because I'd prefer not to read the books/watch the movies that might make me want to jump out of the window. But I don't think my death will make anyone happy, while if I'm alive, maybe I'd be able to help someone non-fictional. That's why I'd rather read/watch something life-affirming. Different people cope in different ways.
 
Sorry Kit, I didn't mean to have a meltdown in your blog. You might delete this comment if you want to.
 
Redcrow -- if you are signed to make a comment (as you seem to be) then you should be able to delete it yourself. [Look for the little trashcan just below your comment]

If you are afraid that your comment is so offensive to me and dismissive of a serious literary and political point I was making that you think I would start a flame war on Kit's blog--don't worry. I wouldn't do that to her.
 
Hey, if you can discuss it as friends, it might be interesting for all concerned. :-)

I think the stories a culture prefers probably do say something about it. I don't think it's as simple as whether you like happy or sad stories; I think it's more to do with sympathies. I'm thinking of Alan Moore commenting that American fiction (I think superhero stuff, but I may be misremembering) was based on the love of an unfair fight, and that you could see a reflection of that in the way America pursues wars: the idea that it's heroic to take on an opponent you can easily crush, which is an odd definition of the word.

The programme for Never Let Me Go did remark that the critics who objected to the characters' passivity tended to be American, for what that's worth.

I think empathy can be encouraged by sad stories; I also think some people may not like sad stories because they hurt their empathy. There's probably no one reason. I know my husband doesn't much like my books because he says 'They're like having something bad actually happen to people I like,' which I take as a compliment, and he's a sympathetic guy...

But yeah, saying 'The book is sad' as if that were a sign of something wrong with it is pretty dumb. As a reason you personally don't want to read it, sure, but as if it's a mistake on the author's part? You probably need to either read more or comment less.
 
*smiles and waves at Kit*

rolls up sleeves to reply Redcrow's point in a non-flamey way

Hey, I am totally for having books that are just plain fun. Hell, I own a lot of them.

But......

And this is a big but....

There is a difference between writing a book intended to be light and enjoyable or a book that the author hopes will provide a few hours of entertainment to its readers and a book that was written, very consciously, to address political, social, economic or moral issues.

To complain that a book that attempts to capture the reality of a totalitarian future doesn't have a happy ending or criticize it on the grounds that it is a 'downer' is to miss the point of the book.

I was discussing 1984 with someone who knows far more about the man's writings than do I and this is evidence that Orwell very consciously closed off all avenues for a happy ending. He presented the reader with the gutted husk of a man rather than allowing the reader to glory in Winston's bravery. To allow Winston to die would have taken away the power of the ending.

I don't suggest that anyone should only read books that address important issues in thoughtful and depressing ways. I do think that a good education requires that students be familiar with at least some of the major examples of such books.

BTW - Kit re your husband's comment on your books. I have had the same problem reading history books. It is just so damn horrible when you know that something dreadful is inevitably going to happen to people you have come to care about.
 
Mmy:

There's no trash can icon under my comment. Maybe it doesn't work with OpenIDs.

>>>If you are afraid that your comment is so offensive to me and dismissive of a serious literary and political point I was making that you think I would start a flame war on Kit's blog--don't worry. I wouldn't do that to her.

No, I didn't think that you'll start a flamewar. What I thought is that I should have better self-control and don't let my hang-ups to overflow.

Kit:

>>>But yeah, saying 'The book is sad' as if that were a sign of something wrong with it is pretty dumb. As a reason you personally don't want to read it, sure, but as if it's a mistake on the author's part? You probably need to either read more or comment less.

I suppose "you" is a generic "you"? Because I didn't say anything like that.

I feel the same way as your husband. Especially when I suspect (or know, because authors themselves confessed) that things went badly not because they couldn't go any other way, but because creators simply wanted some drama. (Or tried to tack some social issue for the sake of looking relevant, not because they cared about said issue. That's a murky territory, because in the first case they might admit that they went for cheap shock, but in the second case no one will say it. And I try to give people a benefit of doubt, so it's easier to deside it's the case of "They really wanted to help but, unfortunately, failed" and not "They just wanted to cash in on something that made the headlines"... but suspicions are still here, and I might be ashamed to think so, but the thought doesn't go away.)
 
I didn't think that you'll start a flamewar. What I thought is that I should have better self-control and don't let my hang-ups to overflow.

Cool -- cause it didn't really _seem_ like you.

Especially when I suspect (or know, because authors themselves confessed) that things went badly not because they couldn't go any other way, but because creators simply wanted some drama.

Can't speak for Kit, of course, but I have real problems with that statement--because it seems to minimize or trivialize what the author is doing.

Orwell doesn't leave Winston a broken and gutted man 'simply because he wanted some drama' but rather because that ending is the point of the story. Yes, another writer could have taken the same basic starting point and ended up with a happier ending. But then it would not have been a book examining the issues that Orwell was addressing.

There is some discussion out in the cyber world right now about the ending of Thelma and Louise. One of the arguments is that the film maker got the best of both worlds. They got to set up a "feminist" drama with an inevitably drastic ending -- but then pulled out at the last minute by leaving you with a freeze-frame.

I would be interested where you would stand in that argument. Of course, you might not know or care about the movie enough to have an opinion and if you don't that's okay.
 
>>>I have real problems with that statement--because it seems to minimize or trivialize what the author is doing.

Sometimes "what author is doing" is simply "oh, X and Y finally got together, but happy couples are boring, let's split them up again! And why not turn Z into a scheming villain, while we're at it?" See: soap operas, fanfiction (not *all* soaps and fanfics, of course).
I hate "let's kill a character's pet as a metaphot for something or other", but at least they do it "as a metaphor", not because they didn't know what else to do with the characters.

I didn't see Thelma and Louise, but I know how it ends. Freeze frame somehow makes it less drastic?! I don't know, if one is very young, and magical thinking is in full effect, maybe... For some reasons it reminds me of a story about a certain movie. The movie was about Vasily Chapaev. Chapaev drowned. Teenage Soviet boys - so the story goes - went to see this movie many times, always hoping that maybe *this time* he'll survive.
 
I suppose "you" is a generic "you"?

Yep.

--

See: soap operas, fanfiction (not *all* soaps and fanfics, of course).

I think there's a risk of talking at cross purposes here: mmy's talking about Orwell and literary fiction in general. Soap operas and fan fiction are a different proposition. Unlike novels, soaps cannot have a beginning, middle and end: certain stories within them can, but they aren't self-contained like novel are, which puts them under different pressures. Fan fiction is written by amateurs and consequently is going to be of a much lower average quality, and again isn't self-contained like a novel because it again depends on the existence of a text external to the fan fiction piece itself. Just in terms of form, never mind quality, they aren't comparable.

I think we all need to define our terms.
 

I think we all need to define our terms


Totally agree.

I am speaking specifically about books, movies and plays--things with fairly clearly recognizable beginnings, middles and ends.

I have spent the afternoon rereading parts of Aristotle's Poetics, Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters and Myth and the Movies and I am knee deep in discussions about constructing works around characters and story arcs.

One other thing that probably creates cross-purposes in discussions is determining/deciding whether a particular book/play/movie was primarily didactic in purpose (in other words it was made entertaining just so the audience wouldn't lose interest and wander away) or if its primary function is to be entertaining (but the author consciously or unconsciously coloured it with hir own political/moral/philosophical outlook.)

It not wise to use exactly the same metrics to judge the two different kinds of books/movies.
 
When I wrote that I feel the same way as Kit's husband, I thought about fiction in general. I'm sorry for miscommunication it created.
 
When I wrote that I feel the same way as Kit's husband, I thought about fiction in general. I'm sorry for miscommunication it created.

I think I got a lot from this conversation -- it reminded me how easy it is to talk right past other people because we just presume that we are all talking about the same thing.

And BTW, I think that Kit's husband saying that is a wonderful challenge to the assumption that people tend to make that women write to "please" their families whereas men write to speak to the larger world.
 
That's a really weird idea about Thelma and Louise - it never occurred to me that a freeze-frame could suggest "it's not really going to happen".

I think (it was a long time ago) I took it more as "our relationship, the stuff we've done, that's the important bit, that's what will survive [in the aether or whatever], and this moment lasts forever even though we're dead".

- Julie paradox

[Kit- I really came over here to ask you if I could send you an email about a parenting community, because the thread that's prompting me is several days old now. I did do so some months ago, and was horrified when I next read slacktivist and discovered the conversation about MadG's unsolicited email...]
 
@merryhouse: go ahead. My email address is available on 'The Author' section of the website.
 
Reposted here from the Supreme Court pages:

On a totally unrelated note: Kit Whitfield, I owe you an apology. I looked back at my comments and yours in the last discussion we had, and I grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick. I managed to confuse your comments with other people's and I took offense where none was meant. I am sorry.
 
Interesting comments - I don't have anything in particular to say to the topic though. On the whole, I suspect I find "downer" endings more memorable, especially when the alternative is a "cheap" happy ending (I'm thinking of some of Jodi Picoult's books in particular). But overall, I have a bit of a "downer" job in dealing with lots of pain and sickness and misery, so when I have time to "recreate myself" I tend to look for something uplifting, inspiring and *not* a "downer", though I also like stuff that makes me think...

Anyway, what I really came for was to ask Kit: did you do movie reviews before you became a mum? If so, how has motherhood affected your movie tastes? I ask because after becoming a mother I find I'm much more teary and emotional in movies than I used to be - just wondering if someone who consciously thinks about these things has noticed a similar effect?
 
Oops - sorry, don't think I signed in properly - it's Elizabby from the Slactivites community. The Slack community? What is it called now?
 
I'm really late to the party here, so I'll keep it short, but I wanted to say that I read this book recently, but I haven't seen the movie -- so I'm in the opposite boat as you. If you read it since posting this entry, then I would recommend adding it to your reading list when you get the chance. The prose is beautiful and the images of the book really stay with you. It's one of those quietly powerful books.
 
that should have said "If you haven't read it since posting this entry"
 
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