Bored in class? Could be worse

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I went to a boarding school in New England, much like the one in Never Let Me Go, but whose mascot was the pelican. The pelican, while not exactly an intimidator on the sports field, is a perversely charitable bird known to feed its offspring with its own blood when no food is available. That concept flapped into mind while I watched the film.

Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield star in Never Let Me Go, based on the Kazuo Ishiguro’s book that Time magazine called
the best novel written in the millenium’s first decade.

The story is this: In the recent past, in a world very similar to our own, a love triangle forms at a boarding school whose students are clones, fated to donate their vital organs as needed. Unless, that is, their love literally can set them free.

Never Let Me Go was adapted from the English-raised Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel (he also wrote the Merchant Ivory-produced The Remains of the Day), and adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland, the same specialist of pseudo-posh science fiction who wrote the Danny Boyle film Sunshine. Director Mark Romanek has obviously has watched a Merchant Ivory film or two in his day—they’re known for lavish sets and European gentility—and knows what Garland wants, which apparently is to leave the movie seeming stifled by its own pretty dignity.

The leads—Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, the latter occasionally channeling a young Anthony Perkins—show good command of their lofty sci-fi source material. Its shrewd casting may be useful to jaded American audiences. In one fell swoop, Never Let Me Go manages to extend the Knightley continuum of literary period-piece hottie allure; to further elaborate on Mulligan’s exquisite, uneasy beauty of ruined innocence; and to naturalize the newcomer Garfield, whose other recent crypto-sci-fi parables of sensitive souls searching for a place in the world include The Social Network and Spike Jonze’s wistful short film I’m Here. Plus, Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins appear in brief but memorable roles. 

While the film has credentials, you come away wondering what Tim Burton might have done with the same basic concept and some puppets. The problem with Never Let Me Go is that its pretext is a medical and political horror that’s never fully acknowledged as such, as if reticence on the matter might actually be more telling. Well, it isn’t. 

Romanek diverts his energy into changing costumes and hairstyles to indicate the passage of time. Only gingerly do he and Garland touch on the novel’s other inherent literary quandaries: How do you make meaning from a highly sheltered life? And what if your first naive hope of being useful to your fellow man gets perverted into something monstrous?

Come to think of it, this quasi-allegory could inspire a fine satire. Maybe one of my fellow pelicans is up to the task?

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