You complete me

Now that it’s finally reached the hinterlands, I took my students to see Never Let Me Go. Let’s start with a BIG OL’ SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book and think you might want to, then stop reading this post. Go give your dog a bath and count the number of times he shakes himself off.

I wanted the students in my class on DNA, Property Rights and Human Identity to see NLMG because it gets right to the heart of the ongoing theme of our semester-long discussion, the same one raised by Rebecca Skloot’s immortal book: who owns your DNA, tissues and organs? In the film, the answer is the government and/or the elite members of society.  NLMG offers a parallel history of the UK from the 1970s through the 1990s. We follow a group of young clones from boarding school to adulthood where they are raised only to supply organs for the rest of society. This is done via a series of “donations”: gradual vivisection until the donors’ vital organs have been fully harvested and they reach “completion,” a wonderful, creepy euphemism.

The cliche-subverting beauty and deeply tragic element of the story is that there is never any real chance that the horrific dystopian donation system will be overturned. NLMG is nothing like this movie and that’s all to the good. Near the end of NLMG the young couple–Kathy H and Tommy–ask only for a “deferral” from donation so that they can spend a bit of time together celebrating their long-delayed and newly consummated love. But of course the donor class is completely dehumanized: there are no deferrals. “Poor creatures,” says the headmistress, “I wish I could help you.” Donors are worthy only of pity, not dignity. It is difficult to read/see NLMG and not think of Carl Elliott’s chilling 2008 account of the lives of some real-life research subjects, “Guinea Pigging.”

NLMG moves at a stately pace, which requires the viewer to give himself over to the film. There are plenty of “significant looks” and surreptitious observations. The last reel rewards one’s patience, however. The cinematography is gorgeous, even when the scene takes place in the most morbid of hospital wards. The script is taciturn, which is also mostly a good thing. Indeed, I never thought I’d say this, but I think the ending is handled better in the film than it is in the book. Ishiguro, I’m sorry to say, goes for a whole man-behind-the-curtain deus ex machina thing that is a jarring contrast to the rest of the novel. The film, in which no one ever utters the word “clone,” has a climactic scene with Charlotte Rampling as the wheelchair-bound keeper of the twisted faith, but her speech is not pedantic or long-winded…only heartbreaking.

The acting is largely superb. Carey Mulligan is riveting as Kathy H. She captures the reticent English worldview, the willingness to forgive, and the hanging-on-in-quiet-desperation with a simple purse of her lips. Keira Knightley is fine as the mean girl. Andrew Garfield is somewhat mystifying. Through most of the film he comes off as an emotionally labile and perhaps mentally retarded kid–it is difficult to understand what either of the leading ladies see in him other than an artistic bent and a puppy-dog cuteness. But in the last third he rises to the occasion: in the end it is Tommy who gives anguished voice to the subjugated humanity of the donors.

Two severed thumbs up (sorry).

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