November 9, 2011

Elegy for a Past that Never Was

a short review of Never Let Me Go, a film based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

I came across this little film last night while scrolling through the offerings on HBO and thought it sounded interesting. It was more than that — it was riveting and disturbing and moving. Some have apparently found the formal element of its being “alternative reality” — or science fiction set not in the future but the past — confusing, but it added to its haunting quality. It would make an interesting double feature with the more spectacular Children of Men.

Some have wondered how people could treat other people in the manner they are treated in this film, but I think the evidence from the not so distant past is overwhelming, and the evidence from the somewhat more distant past (say the antebellum era in the American South) conclusive. People can and do treat other people as if they were not people. Q.E.D.

However, it would be a mistake simply to see it as a story about medical ethics or even the larger issue of how society “commodifies” everything. Rather, the situation and the story provide a matrix for a meditation on impermanence and what the poets call “intimations of mortality.” The title, ironically, says it all: ultimately letting go is part of the human condition. As the film's last line observes, using its own peculiar jargon, "We all complete."

This is a relatively “quiet” film — its emotional impact is cumulative rather than sharply punctuated. Like the author’s earlier Remains of the Day this film dwells in the subtle, muted world of restrained emotions and conformity to values and structures that seem irrational and oppressive, and yet which people seem willingly to embrace. And that is its terror.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

ps An interview with the author on some of the themes in his work. Thanks to Paul Halsall for the link.

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