Monday, May 23, 2011
I finally saw Never Let Me Go, and I cried all the way through it. As someone who came to the film having read the novel it's based on, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, I was astounded by how the film overpowered the novel in terms of emotional strength and sensitivity. Ishiguro's novel is superbly written, yet it is cold and clinical in tone. I didn't cry reading it. This is perhaps the point for a novel whose main characters are human clones created for the purpose of harvesting their organs and body parts. They are created for pure clinical purposes with a careless disregard for their own humanity and feelings. I felt though that I should have walked away from reading the novel deeply empathising with Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and the other cloned human beings, but I didn't. The film however, not only made me empathise, but it also made me angry along with them.
The film completely draws you into their world, their minds, their emotions and their bodies, so you can't help but feel angry at their inevitable fate and the sense of frustration that they cannot do anything to change such a fate. They are essentially created as sacrificial lambs for the diseases of others, harvested like livestock for healthy body parts and organs, parcelled off in one brutal surgery after another until they die. In the midst of this, the enormity of what they could have been had their lives not been created for this sole purpose becomes clear, so that by the end of the film, the question of whether they have a 'soul' or not seems entirely absurd and offensive.
I felt myself drawing constant parallels between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and victims of war in concentration camps. We gradually view their physical decline, until they literally look like concentration camps survivors. Yet the parallels are deeper than that. Tommy, Kathy and Ruth are also entered into a linguistic and metaphorical system of dehumanisation right from the start. All the characters speak about 'donations' and 'completions' as euphemisms for what really occurs to the cloned human beings: mutilation and murder. It reminds me of the way the Nazis spoke about their own mutilated and murdered victims in language that downplayed their humanity and what was really happening to them. In Nazi lingo, Jews weren't human beings, they were a 'disease', a 'problem' that needed 'eradicating' with some good 'medicine'. Likewise, their mass slaughter was not named as such, but was called 'the final solution', almost like Ishiguro's terminology of 'completion'. Never Let Me Go is an acute and stunning portrayal of how language can be used in violent ways and is just as powerful as a knife or gun when it comes to undertaking mass murder and dehumanising people. Of course, this is something which the film owes to the novel it is based on.
However, something which I believe the film adds to the novel is a clear and necessary sense of rage. In the last few scenes when we watch Tommy screaming in a giant cry of injustice and anguish, I was so physically involved in his anger that I started to shake. What superb acting by Andrew Garfield, but also, what a haunting image of a righteous rage. Throughout this scene, I thought of Sophie Scholl's words:
The real damage is done by those millions who want to 'survive.' The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn. (quote from here.)
I felt the film's ending was a direct plea along the lines of Scholl's words: we must each burn our way with Tommy, Ruth and Kathy. We must not accept such dehumanisation, because to do so, would be to live small and die small. The plot of the film may be pure science fiction, and indeed, I can only hope that it remains so. But the metaphoric heart of the film is something that has always been and will always be relevant: the value of life and the desire to fight for it, no matter who you are or how you were born.