Thursday 16 December 2010

Never Let Me Go

I think someone once mentioned this in connection to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and I realized that of course, the similarities are obvious, but for some reason, it never even occurred to me to compare those two, or to see them as working with the same basic idea. In both Dollhouse and Never Let Me Go, people are robbed of their individuality and kept in a state that limits their ability to question their position. In Dollhouse, this happens with technology, in Never Let Me Go, it’s a more subtle process: the clones are born and then follow a predestined path, and what keeps them from deviating is the apparent lack of options and the stories that are deeply ingrained in them during their upbringing. It’s a different kind of programming, but it’s programming nonetheless. Early into the story, when the three main protagonists are still children and are students in Hailsham, one teacher questions their belief that they will die if they ever choose to leave school grounds: she asks them how they know that these stories are true, and they reply, “of course they are true. Who would make up stories as horrible as that?” This kind of conditioning determines their futures – even when they find out why they are being told, again and again, that their health is the most important feature of their existence, they never question their destiny.
“None of you will go to America, none of you will work in supermarkets, none of you will anything except live the life that has already been set out for you. You will become adults, but only briefly. Before you are old, before you are even middle-aged, you will start to donate your vital organs. That's what you're created to do. And sometime around your third or fourth donation, your short life will be complete. You have to know who you are, and what you are. It's the only way you'll lead decent lives.”
Never Let Me Go does not use the revelation of its subject matter as the first big surprise of the story; it is the inescapable condition. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth were cloned to serve as organ donors for an outside society we barely ever see, to enable others to live forever, and when this is revealed to them, they have limited resources to question either their own position in this society or the society itself which considers them as nothing more but a resource to be harvested.
Never Let Me Go is only marginally interested in the society which led to this condition. The more important question is: what kind of life can these people live under these circumstances? What kind of life do people lead who know when they are going to die? They are being taught how life on the outside works in theory, in strange rituals that teach them how to purchase food, but once on the outside, they have to resort to copying whatever they see around them – Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) become a couple and once they leave the confirmed space of Hailsham, Ruth starts to use rituals of tenderness seen on television in her own life. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the narrator, is more conscious of her own existence than the others, but she does not develop any ideas about how to resist, or articulate her anger at those who have made her what she is. She is merely a keen observer.

The good life Kathy leads is to become the person who takes care of other donors. The same kindness that originally lead her to befriend Tommy, a strange and angry child at Hailsham, now lets her carry the burden of seeing others through the process that always ends in death. The friends fall apart as their lives take different directions, but then they are united by an idea – Ruth, feeling that she will die soon, wants to make up for taking Tommy away from Kathy and tells them to find out whether a legend that has been told to them is true, that those who can prove that they are truly in love are given some years together, that the officials can look into their souls through the art they created in the course of their lives and determine whether their feelings are authentic or not, and reward those who are in true, verifiable love.
Emily: You have to understand, Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. We used your art to show what you are capable of, to show that donor children are all but human; we were providing an answer to a question no one was asking. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor-neuron disease, they'll simply say no. We used to get two or three couples like you a day, not so much these days. You're the first for quite a while.
Tommy: To apply for a deferral?
Kathy: There are no deferrals, Tommy.
Madame: There are no deferrals, and there never have been.
Emily: We didn't have the gallery in order to look into your souls, we had the gallery to see if you had souls at all. You understand?
Kathy: Yes.
This society does not dare to ask whether those who provide it with this luxury of extended life are human at all; it would be a burden to question the morality of growing humans just for the sake of keeping others alive longer.
Most stories that are being told are about heroes, people realizing that a certain situation is unbearable or unconscionable, who decide to do something, to break out, to rebel. Echo, in Dollhouse, inevitably must turn into a rebel once she has realized who she is, and what the Dollhouse is. On the other hand, the fact that she succeeds in the face of all the adversaries is so unlikely that it almost taints the consistency of the story itself. Success, in Echo’s case, wasn’t just unlikely, it was impossible, and eventually, the story had to rely on a deus ex machina (Topher’s brain) to find its happy end.
Even when Kathy and Tommy find out that there is no way out of the system, they accept their destinies. Kathy loses Tommy on the operating table, and will soon start her own donations. This point of view is frustrating and sad, but it is probably a more honest story than one that would have had them fight a war that they could never win.

2010, directed by Mark Romanek, featuring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Kate Bowes Renna.

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