Ishiguro at the Movies

Posted on | October 4, 2010 | Comments Off

I’m not sure why I was so determined to see Never Let Me Go given that reviews have uniformly noted its failure to live up to the excellent Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it is based.  (Ebert: “A good movie from a masterful novel.”  Denby:  “This adaptation of the much loved 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel is, alas, a stiff.”) The consensus seems to be a kind of measured respect for a film none of them actually liked.  In fairness, the novel is not exactly what one would call an upper.  More problematically, its voice is everything.  But curiosity won the day, and I bought a ticket. safe online casino slots

Never Let Me Go—both the novel and the film—is narrated by Kathy H., a graduate of Hailsham, an idyllic country school in England about which something is perceptibly off.  We eventually learn (I guess this is where one is supposed to say spoiler alert?) that the children at the school are clones, copies of the dregs of society, who are being raised for the sole purpose of organ donation.  Hailsham is, in essence, a very beautiful factory farm.

The main complaint levied against the movie has been its level of control.  One learns earlier, and more bluntly than in the novel, who—or really what—Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy truly are, but the director Mark Romanek is so determined to preserve Ishiguro’s muted refusal of judgment that he squeezes out any room to feel at all.  Manohla Dargis, typically, nails it: “You might even feel something too, though your emotional response to the slow-creeping horror will most likely soon die, snuffed out by directorial choices that deaden a story already starved for oxygen.”  She’s right.  The only moment I felt something akin to the sneaking unease of reading the book was a scene in which doctors remove organs from a donor as she dies, unattended, on the operating table.  It’s a rare moment in which the addition of visual detail enhances Ishiguro’s reality.  Unlike the novel, the movie works better when it dares to jolt.

Of course it’s impossible to unknow what I already know of the novel, so I’m not coming at the movie with a clean slate.  But my sense was that its problems had less to do with the pace with which information is, or isn’t, revealed, than with the way packing the book into a two-hour film shortchanges the relationships that, more than cloning or organs, are the novel’s center.  The story Kathy is more interested in telling is that of her childhood friendships with Ruth and Tommy—a romantic triangle that grows ever more fraught with the slow onslaught of their curtailed adulthood.  The movie gives due attention to the relationship between Kathy and Tommy, but Kathy’s friendship with Ruth goes less explored (the two are played by Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightly respectively).  Kathy’s foremost trait, the overriding feature of her voice, is her quiet loyalty, and the depth of her friendship with Ruth is what cements her fate.  But in the movie, Ruth is the least developed of the three main characters, an easy egotist wedged between the two would-be lovers long enough to lend the film a plot.  We see none of the prickly, defensive child, so scared of being left out, whom Ishiguro drew so carefully.  The reviews are right to find Never Let Me Go emotionally hollow, but I wonder if they’re starting from the wrong place.

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