A good idea on paper

I had two choices at the Curzon this afternoon (because I work on Saturday mornings, I often give myself Friday afternoon off in lieu and treat myself to a film): True Grit and Never Let Me Go, both preceded by hype, both packed with actors I like, both weighed down with awards and/or nominations. I chose the latter, which, on a drizzly afternoon when I was a bit tired anyway due to early starts, was the wrong choice. At least a big, fat western would have woken me up a bit.

Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (the impressive One Hour Photo and, among a long CV of pop videos, the magnificent Hurt), and adapted for the screen from the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by Alex Garland, who can also write a novel, it has all the hallmarks of quality. It has subtle titles; it is bleached out; it is slow; it drip-feeds information rather than – like, say, Outcasts – beats you around the face with signposts; and its acting is subtle and quiet. This is not a film to please dimwits. However, it is a film to displease me. Having read the rave reviews I am now concerned that it may be me, rather than the film. While editing the reviews of the new releases for Radio Times this week, I suggested we take out mention of the story’s central premise from the review, because to know it is to have a huge slice of your potential enjoyment taken away before it starts. (Most reviews I’ve read give it away – at least Sight & Sound warned of spoilers in red letters – so if you don’t know it, read nothing. There will be no giveaways here.)

It’s possible that knowing the “twist” (it’s not a twist that comes at the end, which is why I use speechmarks) reduced my own enjoyment of Never Let Me Go. It’s also arguable that the opening scene, although elliptical, gives it away too. Either way, a lot unfolds from a seemingly benign first act in a very measured and intelligent way. It moves at its own pace and gathers to a sort of climax, although not one that’s climactic in the popcorn-munching sense. Am I being vague enough? All you need to know is that the action hinges on three performances: Carey Mulligan (whose character Kathy also narrates), Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. I am an admirer of the work of all three, even Knightley’s. Unfortunately, we don’t see their characters as adults until about midway through, as the first act takes place at an enigmatic English boarding school – so we’re stuck with child actors, none of whom are bad, but all of whom are children, and as such, an elongated tease before we get to Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield.

By the time the action catches up with our heroes in young adulthood, it’s been a pretty dull ride. It was only when I emerged into the light from the film’s overriding browns and greys, that I realised what had failed to ignite. It’s a classic case of film-based-on-a-novel. I can imagine its langourous pace and gentle act of unfolding working superbly on the page, when you are forced to imagine it all; likewise, the eloquent narration of Kathy is designed to be read, not listened to, or at least, not listened to in the context of a dramatisation that’s intended to make fictional events real. I’m not against narration per se – unfashionably, I like Blade Runner with the voiceover – but it can pall when there’s this much of it. Garland apparently wrote the script before the novel was published, that’s how certain he was that it would make a film. Well, it does. But my guess is that it makes a better book. Damn, I feel as if I must be some kind of philistine for not getting much out of this film. It has not affected my love of the actors, or the filmmakers. We just passed each other by, somehow. I wonder how those who have read the book will feel?

Still, True Grit tomorrow. That was a novel too. Narrated by a female character.


10 thoughts on “A good idea on paper

  1. Nice “Outcasts” reference, can’t believe Apollo got shot at the end of episode 1. (Does he come back to life in episode 2? …… not sure, probably wont watch it though. Hopefully “Sherlock” season 2 will rekindle my interest in BBC drama)

    Enjoy “True Grit”, the young actor in the female lead is great, she carries Bridges and Damon through the movie.

    I also like Barry Pepper as an actor from his roles in “61” and “3”. (I wonder will he make other movies with prime number titles…maybe he could remake the awful Jim Carrey movie “The Numer 23” ?)

    I always think Pepper adds a little bit of flavour to any movie he is in. I was hoping he would have a cameo role in the Angelina Jolie movie “Salt” but sadly it wasn’t to be.

    What are your favourite movies with numbers in the title ?

    I like “Seven” and “21” the best.
    I think “21” was three times better than “Seven” but that’s just my opinion, I happen to like movies about Maths (and MIT students playing blackjack)

    I haven’t watched “Nine” yet….maybe thats what I’ll do tomorrow

    Enjoy the weekend

  2. I haven’t seen this, I just wanted to comment that I too prefer Blade Runner with the voice over, despite what an apparently unpopular stance that is to take. It’s not helped that he did other things at the same time as removing the VO to ruin it.

  3. I haven’t seen the film yet but I did read the novel a few years ago. I remember reading multiple interviews with Ishiguro at the time when he stated that he wasn’t at all concerned if word of “the twist” go out – in some cases, even going so far as to say that, having seen the reaction from reviewers to the book, he wished he’d inserted an unambiguous explanation of “the twist” right at the start of his story so that readers could get past that issue and engage with what he felt was the real theme of his story. (For example, Ishiguro addresses this point in his Guardian Book Club talk with John Mullanat approximately the 5 minute mark.)

    It worries me slightly if the film’s plot hinges on “the twist”, because to my mind it’s the nature of the world where “the twist” comes to pass – how similar it is to ours, and how the characters (particularly those in a position to benefit from the consequences of “the twist”) deal with their knowledge of it – that makes it such a fascinating read.

  4. I don’t dislike Blade Runner with the voice over as it does lend itself to the whole “detective noir” mood of the film, though I do prefer it without. The only problem is that, being one of my all-time favourite films, I saw the original theatrical version so many times before the later Director’s and Final cuts that I still hear it even when it isn’t there.

    It is fantastic though, whichever version you prefer, and Batty’s closing monologue is one of the most amazing moments ever captured on film.

  5. I, too, went into this film knowing the “twist”, having glanced it accidentally just a few days beforehand (as you say, it’s not a deal-breaker in this case, but nothing about the film suggests ‘big twist’ – and how can one avoid reading a twist without knowing there’s a twist to avoid reading?)

    It was this very core concept that spoilt the film for me, though. I found the school years material much more heartbreaking than the dénouement, in which all the sadness is linked to ‘the situation’ – a situation I was more than aware would/has never happen/happened. It’s an undeniably well orchestrated emotional plod, with some great performances (the second act Cottage years are the headliners’ high point); in the end I just couldn’t feel empathy for these oddly detached, naive characters.

  6. Each of the three acts in this gentle but heartwrenching drama lasts about half an hour so the early years and the lack of adult protagonists i.e. Mulligan, Garfield and Keighley, features in only a third rather than half the film.

    The fact that the “twist”, as it is, is given away so quickly, both in the first scene with Mulligan and Garfield in the operating theatre and by Sally Hawkins in the classroom in no way subtracts from the power of the film.

    Suspending disbelief and the sneaking suspicion that this set of circumstances would and could never take place I found myself shedding the odd tear throughout. I appreciated it even if I didn’t enjoy it.

    The Social Network, on the other hand, was more enjoyable but more lightweight too. Whilst the sound mix and music for Never Let Me Go was never intrusive and always supported the story I felt that The Social Network was shouting at me; indeed the titles included a credit for sound design suggesting that this was a deliberate ploy. I hated it and I felt that the movie was enjoyable in spite of it.

    Garfield was excellent as the wronged Eduardo whilst Jesse Eisenberg did his usual schitck of fast-talking, stony-faced nerd. Delightful too, were the two actors playing the “Winkelvi”, whose height and build matched their patrician sense of entitlement and, naturally, resulted in them winning their action against Zuckerburg and a cool $60 million.

    • The Winklevoss brothers were played by a single actor, Armie Hammer, not actual twins. His full name is genuinely Armand Hammer, so either his parents hated him or they REALLY like baking soda.

  7. Just seen Never Let Me Go. And I haven’t read the book.

    I avoided reading your blog on it until now – and I agree with a lot of what you said. The twist – if there is one – isn’t handled well. Either don’t give most of it away in subtitles and the opening scene. Or embrace it and we can experience the dramatic irony and yearning that kids discover the truth.

    The scene with Sally Hawkins was very odd – it felt like stumbling down a steep hill – I imagine in the book her character slowly leeches the truth to her class rather than in a one scene one speech section of the film.

    My over riding thought throughout the final act is WHY DONT YOU RUN AWAY or rebel in some way. Has that teenage kicking against the pricks been removed? There was a part of me urging them to at least take their destiny into their own hands and in doing so deprive the system of the vital resource they possessed. But they don’t.

    So I was left feeling flat, sad for the situation the characters were in, but now the credits have rolled like you I feel there is probably a better book behind this than the film. That is certainly the case with Remains of the Day.

  8. It’s no longer unfashionable to claim you like Bladerunner WITH the narration. Like you I’ve always liked tha aspect of the original release (first time round I think I needed it) although not the happy ending (footage actually courtesy of left overs from The Shining but I expect everyone knows that now) but now everyone is saying.

    I realise I’m off the point but I haven’t seen Never Let Me Go and no that I never will. I’ve decided to stay unfashionable on Knightley. The usually crtic response to her films has now become ‘actually Knightley was rather good in this’ when actually she’s shit in everything. You’ll all come back round to my way of thinking sooner or later. Oh and Mulligan is overrated too.

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