It’s been a while, or, ‘This sure isn’t a comic…’

by TheLitCritGuy


Well, hello there blogosphere, it really has been far too long. You’re looking lovely by the way. Have you been doing something different with your hair? I know we haven’t spoken much lately but I’ve been knee-deep in producing a fairly large piece of academic work so sadly things have had to be a little quiet here on the blog. Thankfully though, I’ve gotten myself to the point where I feel comfortable enough to leave the serious work for a little while and jot down a few thoughts here upon an appropriate novel.

Now, I know that the last few blogs have been a little too comic focused for some tastes and whilst this was never meant to be a comics blog in the middle of a heavy work load a comic was often the only thing  even remotely felt like reading. So, have no fear my good and patient reader, the comics will not be appearing here for a little while – there is a big wide adaptive land to explore so it’s time to do something a little more traditionally literary.

Thinking back over the last films I had seen that came from a literary source it took me a little time to come up with one that I felt was different enough to be a break from the whizz bang excitement of the graphic novels. Till I found it. Something deeply melancholic, concerned with the deepest question of what makes us human and wonderfully, bleakly English.

Oh, and it’s a another Keira Knightly film…Ah well…

It’s Never Let Me Go if you haven’t already got there.

Unlike many films that spend years and years in development hell, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel was published in 2005 and principal photography of the film began in late 2009. Frankly, for the film industry this is nothing short than working at the speed of light. The film was produced with surprisingly little fanfare befitting its (by modern films) low-budget of a paltry $15 million dollars. Then it went and surprised everyone by being really quite good indeed. As usual I’m going to try to be quite coy, this is a film you need to seek out and a book you should beg borrow or steal so if the lack of detail is frustrating, consider this me trying to whet your appetite.

The film follows the lives of a group of school children who grow up in an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham. Whilst the world of the film is broadly similar to ours the film opens by detailing a medical advancement that now allows people to extend their life span to beyond a hundred years. We’re then introduced to the 28-year-old Kathy H, played by the simply superb Carey Mulligan who recounts the experiences she’s had at the school along with her closest friends Tommy and Ruth – played by the excellent Andrew Garfield and Knightly respectively.

From the outset the film really shows a deft control of perspective and of subtlety; we have the impression that there is something horrible lurking in the background of this world but thanks to the childlike perspective and heart shattering naivety of the characters it remains out of sight. The more developed your own personal sense of awareness with the action the more the characters seem hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the world. A world, which when the reveal comes, proves to be a place that uses them in some of the cruellest ways imaginable.

Not that these three are played in any way as one-dimensional simpletons, the real pathos the film generates is from the attempt for these characters to behave like real people. Out of the three Ruth probably serves the best example of this; now, it is quite fashionable to slate Knightly as an actress, deriding her as naught but a pretty face but after this film you simply can’t say that she doesn’t have talent. Ruth is, for the vast majority of the film, not a nice person at all. Deliberately she keeps Kathy and Tommy apart as she recognises the emotional depth their relationship has. She pretends to be the most worldly-wise of all the characters from Hailsham but is left shockingly exposed when in the outside world. The films later scenes when she and Kathy are brought back together are the flip side of the film’s opening. Ruth ends up weak and reliant on the character that she so mistreated and yet through it all Ruth never slips into easy characterisation or poor performance.

Andrew Garfield is another one who turns in an incredible performance – I’ll admit I knew very little about him before this but here he proves that he has the acting chops to compare to the best actors working in cinema. Tommy is possibly the saddest of all the three, grappelling with issues of emotional depth and complexity that he  has neither the awareness or the emotional articulation to properly express. The scene where he and Kathy have their chance of happiness dashed brutally by a frail woman in a wheelchair is gripping cinema and the look on Tommy’s face, pleading, hopeful and utterly uncomprehending.

This film is all about Carey Mulligan, described by one of my friends as going to watch her emote for two hours, Never Let Me Go proved her as an actress that could carry an entire film. Heartfelt, morally complex but always a good person Kathy is a character that hold this film together and Mulligan does a simply stellar job. Her air of resignation to the fate that she and the people like her are condemned to, makes the whole thing strangely  calm. The brief moments when we see what actually happens to these people become even more shocking thanks to the air of quiet stoicism that Mulligan brings to the role.

So I think that I’ve established I think this is a great film, but how does it stack up as an adaptation? Well, really quite excellently. There is one thing that the film does very well that I feel is worth talking about, and brace yourself, because here be the language of English criticism. In academic English nothing annoys more than language used clumsily and it is for this reason that I got hammered by the marker in one of my first undergrad essays for using the word tone to describe what a book was like.

Looking back I can see this is the kind of basic writing error that would make an academic’s head explode with rage, to talk about a book’s tone doesn’t really tell the reader anything of what the book is like but I think with film the tone is an interesting thing to look at. It’s a hard word to try to pin down but the best way I can put it is the sense that a film leaves you with. And this is where I think the film got it absolutely right. The book and the film are extremely similar and the only real adaptive ‘flaws’ are shifts in emphasis from certain elements of the story and a couple of characters that I really liked did get slightly short shrift from the film.

But let me see if I can find the best way to put this, the book Never Let Me Go is a love letter, to an era of humanities lost innocence and a dire warning of the path things could go down if, for one second, we all forget just how much value is inherent in humanity. It’s important, beautiful, full of sadness and tinged with nostalgia and you don’t have to understand the technical elements of narratology to understand that.

This is what the film nails, the photography and cinematography and simply beautiful using landscape and haunting scenery to show the insignificance of human life. The look of the film is wonderfully authentic and the make up gives the characters a lost look in their ever-so-slightly too large costumes.

It’s the details you see, that’s why this is so good. Couple that with an understanding of the source material, a top-notch cast and a story to touch the most stony-hearted of you then this is simply one you cannot miss. Read it, watch it, love it!

Already seen it? Disagree entirely? Think I’ve gotten all of this so wrong? The please join in the conversation in the comment section below.

Nearly at the end of my dissertation so I’m going to be doing my best to try to catch up with the ever-growing list of awesome suggestions that you’ve all given me and I’ll be back to updating more regularly once again. Thanks for reading and keeping the conversation going.