Wednesday, February 9, 2011
A thin young woman lies on an operating table in a stark room, lit with bright cool lights. A respirator hangs from her mouth, and the doctors busy themselves around her open abdomen. The beeping of the monitor connected to the woman is the only sound. The beeping begins to go fast, and then faster, faster, but the doctors continue on, unhurried, never glancing at the face of the woman on the table - there is not the usual half-panic, hurry, and concern one might expect in an operating room with such hectic beeping. The beeping rises and rises until the individual tones merge into one line of sound. Still, the doctors and nurses move deliberately, efficiently, unhurriedly. A red organ is carefully lifted from the body; the ventilator is taken from the unresponsive lips. The doctors and nurses leave, no backward glances, and the woman is left on the table, alone, her body gouged and open, helpless, pathetic, undignified.
This scene, this image of the woman, of the lonely body on the table is at the center of Never Let Me Go, a film about the inevitability of death, the loneliness of death, the starkness of death, the frailty of the dying and the dead, and the selfishness and lack of compassion of the living. Heavy stuff indeed. But somehow, this film is simply beautiful, one of the most beautiful films, in fact, that I’ve seen this past year. And in spite of the heavy weight of the subject matter, in the quiet center of the film, there is no reaching for grand philosophical statements about life and death. There is only an unassuming poignance and resonance.
The film’s story centers on three young people who grow up without parents, cloistered behind the walls of a school called Hailsham, growing up to serve a purpose from which there seems to be no escape. Their marrow of their lives, when they reach adulthood, is to be given in service of others - and they have no choice in the matter. They were born for the purpose.
In a traditional Hollywood film, we might expect our young heroes, beautiful as they are and centered in the story as they are, to find escape, to fight their way to the freedom to live as they wish. But this film is not a traditional film. Where we expect a rise to some kind catharsis, even if that catharsis is a raging, fiery one of death, we get only a quietness. It’s a film of anti-catharsis in a way, if there can be such a thing.
It’s a film the undermines our expectations for what a conventional film should do at so many turns - but instead of giving us shocking twists away from convention, we instead get simple, gentle turns in other directions, turns that, if we have been paying attention, we could have seen coming, but perhaps we might see clearly only in retrospect.
From early on in the film, our three young people, as children, are caught in a kind of love triangle, and while our sympathies are with the sweet, thoughtful girl called Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and the boy she’s interested in, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) (and there is a beautifully built series of moments, depicting the shy childhood romance between Kathy and Tommy), we watch with Kathy, as her friend Ruth (Keira Knightley), woos and wins Tommy. It is a puzzlement - Kathy and Tommy seemed made for each other. But our expectations are thwarted. And they are thwarted again when we take, in the film, a leap in time: the children have grown, Tommy and Ruth are still together, Kathy still watches, quietly, from the outside.
We are thwarted still further when a break between Ruth and Tommy yet later does not result in Tommy and Kathy finding one another - the film simply goes on in its quiet way, the characters moving through life, giving in to it, letting it carry them. And even later in the film, after our three have gone separate ways, when they find a way, by chance, to meet with each other, meeting on a beautiful, isolated beach, Ruth, in a gesture of guilt and admission of jealousy and unrightful previous possession, does not reclaim Tommy, but gives him up, gives him to Kathy. But the scene does not offer the catharsis we might expect; it is instead a strange anticlimax, falling well after where the normal climax would come, an anticlimax that intentionally undercuts all our expectations for what a romance in film is “supposed to be” - instead of giving us a love affair, it brings us only the offer of a love affair - but an offer that we know, and the characters know, is an offer that comes too late.
We do not get the rushing together of the lovers into each other’s arms after years of painful separation as we might get in a conventional film; we get only years of calm acceptance and then quietness in the face of Ruth’s confession. Kathy’s response is silence, and then a “it’s too late, Ruth.” And it is. Tommy and Kathy have a few moments of tenderness together, but we know Tommy has no time. We’ve just seen him, before Ruth’s confession, on the beach in the midst of an excited exploration of an abandoned boat, clutching his side - and we know the inevitable is not far off. A love affair, if there will be one, will be only as quiet and staid as is the reception of Ruth's statement.
So the catharisis that could possibly have come earlier in the story cannot come now at this point in the film. And the film is intentional in that. Instead of catharsis, we have, instead, two people, who have quietly loved each other, but long ago gave each other up, two people who have a few small moments together at, essentially, their deathbeds. And this, I think, is exactly what the film is about. Death in life. And the ways that we simply carry on, carry on with the life we have, without fighting, until death.
There is a slim hope of a possible deferral of their deaths, but it is a hope we know that is born of fragile wishes and ignorance - and, Kathy, at least, is careful in her hope - careful in hope throughout the whole film. She hopes, but she tempers her hope always - they know that they will die, and very soon. Kathy has no real illusions, and so, because we are primarily following her, neither do we - nor should we, if we are wise - as viewers.
In the scene in which this hope for Tommy and Kathy will be answered, once and for all, a scene which we might normally view with suspense, there is only an uneasiness and dread - poignance - but still, deep unease. And I believe the film gives us all the subtle hints we need up until this point of hope to know that this scene - where Tommy hopes to prove a reason for a deferral - will not bring any real suspension of or hiatus from the march towards death.
We see our first hint towards that stark truth when we see the Madame, the sort of superintendent of Hailsham, at the school for the very first time when Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy are still children. The Madame arrives in a car and walks up the steps through the curious children - walking with a look of distance, distaste, possibly, on her face - and we see one action in which she lifts her bag up so that she will not touch the children. And then we know just how what she - and by extension the outside world - considers these children to be, inhuman, Other. We have the hint there that there is no real hope for any sympathy, for true deferral for these children.
There is another hint towards this truth in a moment in a cafe when Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy have their first contact with the outside world, a moment when the idea of and hope for a deferral for lovers is first broached. A deferral for lovers. Surely, there will be that . . . ? Our three are with another couple who is in love and desperate, desperate for some hope. We see the painful expectation on the faces of other couple, their belief in a rumor about a deferral, as they eagerly ask our Hailsham three for confirmation of the rumor. But then the crushing fact comes that the Hailsham children have never heard of such a thing. In that scene, in that moment, the rumors about deferrals, all the stories of hope, are crushed, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If there is not a deferral for lovers, for the sake of this sacred thing called love, who will be spared? And this cold knowledge adds to the dread, the knowledge we have as viewers that these characters we are following will die in exactly the way that all the others have died. Simply because we are following their story makes no difference - they are our characters, but the fact that we love them doesn’t matter. They will die exactly as planned.
And so in the scene in which Tommy and Kathy, together, hope for life, we have been given all the hints we need, to know, at least subconsciously, that hope is useless. We have seen enough, felt enough, to know that this is not a story that will have a happy ending, not a story that will demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit, the fighting against the machine, the fighting face of the odds. No, the scene only confirms what we have known, surely, all along, death will come as has been planned, at the time it has been planned, and the characters will accept it in the same way that we've seen them accept everything, submitting to what they have been made for.
It is a film that builds its tragedy slowly, and without histrionics and wild gestures and, beautifully, without convention. It simply gains in heaviness by simple additions of weighted, small moments.
But the idea of life in death, of the inevitability of life in death is not the only idea in the film. The film is also about the actions of the soon-to-be-dead living towards the dying, towards the dead. We see that action with the doctors who have removed the organ from the young woman and left her coldly on the table, but we also see it in our main characters. As Ruth is languishing, sick and ill, in the hospital, Kathy comes to see her, to tell her that she and Tommy will try to apply for a deferral of their fate.
We see in that scene the stark contrast between a woman who is in the very grasp of death, who has no hope, no love left, and a woman who has a few more years before death comes to claim her, a woman who has a very small something to hope for - and the second woman, the one with the hope, leaves the other to her loneliness, without, that we can see, regret. And in spite of the love we have built up for Kathy, we see in her a coldness towards Ruth’s plight that comes from her own concern with herself, from her own slim hope that she might be able to extend her life - for just a little while. She does not fight against her ultimate fate, but the extension, oh, the extension, she will reach for that if it's there, over the dying, helpless form of her friend.
And there in that scene, in that capsule - the one woman dying, the other woman still alive and wrapped in her own hopes - the horrible truth is that our characters are just the same as those who have destined them to their fate, for our characters can be as cruel in their small hope to live just a few years more as those who take life from them.
So this film is indeed, about death, about the inevitability of death, about our fragile lives - but it also about the horror of the ways in which we scramble over one another in order to beg Death for a moment more of life.
This is a film that will resonate for a long time to come - because of its loveliness, its devastation. It's a film of understatement and interiority - and so utterly, cooly beautiful in the execution of those two things. The film is so much about what is not said, so much about undercurrent. It’s constructed in such a way that it undercuts what we might expect, but it undercuts those expectations in very quiet ways, so quietly and beautifully, in fact, that we don’t even realize perhaps, until long after we’ve left our cinema seats, what it has done.