Never Let Me Go achieves something almost unique: it’s a movie whose artistic achievement arguably dooms it. Directed by Mark Romanek and adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel by Alex Garland, the movie depicts an alternate timeline in which organ donation technology was perfected in England in the 1950s. In order to provide organs for harvesting, donors are bred and raised in schools, where they are prepared for a short, perfunctory shadow of a normal life and an inevitably protracted and grisly death. This process is shown through the eyes of Kathy (Carey Mulligan, on fire as usual), a donor whose love for Tommy (Andrew Garfield: even better here than in Social Network) is thwarted by the machinations of Ruth (Keira Knightley), a betrayal which Kathy stoically endures for several years before their unavoidable fate brings them back together for a reckoning.
Writing it out like that makes it seem as if the movie is a melodramatic and emotional rollercoaster, but Romanek – whose first movie, way back in the 80s, was the similarly clinical Static – has been given the unenviable task of dramatising the tale of three people whose emotional spectrum is compromised to the point of frigidity, and whose range of action is necessarily restricted. A snap decision by Kathy midway through the movie to become a “carer” is possibly the only action in the movie that passes for agency: even Tommy’s insistence that he can convince his former teachers of the existence of his soul through the use of art is presented as an almost indifferent act, though this could be a side-effect of the demands placed on the actors.
Dissecting the movie afterwards shines a light on Romanek and Garland’s choices, and it’s apparent that the mysterious nature of the donors is intentional. There is no explanation of the logistical and medical processes behind the programme (are they clones or test tube babies?), and as we experience this alternate world through the eyes of three people whose knowledge of their predicament is incomplete it makes sense to keep us in the dark as well. Nevertheless, if we’re meant to empathise with these people, it doesn’t help that the audience has to expend so much energy attempting to ignore all of the questions thrown up by the scenario. One particularly egregious act change happens abruptly, with the events of the next few years – events that radically change the relationships of the three “protagonists” – are brushed away with a quick burst of expositionary voiceover. Choices like that make the movie so slippery it’s hard to hold on to it, or to connect.
As time has passed since seeing it, I’ve come to appreciate many of the narrative decisions made here, while being resigned to not really caring about the finished product much. I wish I’d read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel just to know how many of Romanek and Garland’s choices were out of loyalty to the author or were experiments that went awry. There’s so much to commend about the movie, especially the breath-taking performances from Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan, both of whom are good enough that I will happily recommend the movie just for them alone. It’s thought-provoking, beautifully shot and sensitively scored, but in dramatising the emptiness of these “people” and leaving out so much backstory, the experience rings frustratingly hollow. It really doesn’t help that after two hours of commendably/annoyingly spare storytelling, the final scene of the film features a little voiceover speech that explicitly spells out one of the major themes of the movie. Imagine if The Godfather ended with a voiceover from Michael Corleone saying, “As the door shut on my wife Kay, it occurred to me that the terrible choices I had made and the events that led to me becoming the head of a crime family have estranged me from the woman I loved and corrupted my soul.” It’s that bad.
The single strongest emotion I experienced while watching it was horrible futile anger at the society that had created these people and asked them to live an empty life before being butchered for the sake of others, especially as the donors accept their fate with such glum resignation. As others have commented, this makes the story a companion to Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, in which James Stevens refuses to leave the societal box he was born into even though this prevents him from finding true happiness. Britons certainly love their immobile class strata, or rather Britons resent it terribly but don’t seem to have a problem watching people “beneath” them trapped in their amber of their upbringing. On that level Never Let Me Go is almost a success: it pushed that class-conscious button in my soul about as hard as it ever has, and American director Romanek deserves recognition for capturing the frozen nature of British society — and the miserable country-wide decision to treat it as an immutable fact — so well.
Regrettably, the necessary narrative gap that keeps us from understanding the true predicament of the protagonists also makes it hard to equate with them. Are they accepting of their fate because of some hardwired conditioning? Because they have been taught to be this way? Is there something missing from their chemistry as a result of the process that created them? How much of this story is directly related to the ways in which societal strata are enforced by the education and culture in the real world? If it’s a biological amendment to people who would have developed to be humans with agency, is this an allegory for something else? The technical details of this world shouldn’t really matter, and I’m not so anal that I can’t make a few leaps of assumption, but knowing the exact purpose of the movie is inevitably stymied by the vagueness of the rules.
That means Never Let Me Go succeeds at least partially as brain food, but the sad side-effect is that it’s even harder to make an emotional connection with the often affectless characters. I can praise it as a satire on the British class system (scenes depicting working class people so overwhelmed with pity that they are unable to even look at the donors are probably the only ones that stayed with me when the movie ended), and maybe even fondly consider it some form of weirdly clinical agit-prop designed to subconsciously drive the viewer into a rebellion against the prison of their social standing, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see it as a tragic love story or fable about the fleeting nature of life itself, despite the considerable efforts of the main actors and the focus of much of the narrative. It’s a movie to admire rather than feel, though the sound of sniffing in the auditorium suggests I may be alone on this one. Is it wrong that I wanted to watch Michael Bay’s The Island as soon as I left the screening? (Please don’t answer that one.)
Strangely, the cold tone of Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago didn’t bother me at all, but then the suppressed emotional charge of her movie wasn’t at odds with the theme, as with Romanek’s film. Her second movie (the first, Unrelated, came and went so fast it only left two or three positive reviews in its wake) depicts a family getaway to the isle of Tresco that goes awry. Actually, that is probably the wrong way of looking at it. This family, comprising Edward (Tom Hiddlestone, soon to be Loki in Branagh’s Thor), Cynthia (the wonderfully unpleasant Lydia Leonard), their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy), and their absent father, is already horribly broken at the start of the holiday, and over the course of the movie they pretty much just decide to stop pretending that everything is all right. It’s the slowest of slow burns: almost nothing happens for the running time, but those little chinks in their armour, those very British stiff-upper-lip pretences, are revealed in mesmerising detail, all while the incredible scenery is battered by metaphorical tumult.
It should be exactly the sort of thing that repels me, but Hogg’s control of tone and pace is impressive, and her ability to draw convincing and naturalistic dialogue and performances from her actors is second-to-none: how gratifying to see someone picking at upper-middle-class mores and concerns with such respect and restraint, while critics are compelled to mistakenly gush praise at Mike “Snide” Leigh and his reliance on caricature and mockery. Hogg is perfectly happy dragging scenes out to almost unendurable length, the uncomfortable silences stretching out to the point that I almost ran out of the cinema to avoid them (my inability to handle such uncomfortable moments is most horribly displayed in my eagerness to ask questions at film festival Q&As. When no one seemed to want to ask Shirley Henderson a question after the screening of Meek’s Cutoff I almost rugby-tackled the guy with the microphone just to end that excruciating moment).
Just to make Archipelago even more British, Hogg adds two extra characters: a pretentious painter (the oleaginous Christopher Baker) who hovers around Patricia as her loneliness grows, while giving amusingly vague advice to Edward, and Rose (Amy Lloyd), the cook who accompanies them all, attracting the listless romantic attentions of Edward and some withering class-borne disdain from Cynthia. It’s arguable that both of them are there as temptations for Patricia and Edward, but Rose’s most important role is as counter-point to the silly concerns of the family. While they squabble about Edward’s decision to take a gap year break in Africa to battle AIDS, and pine for their absent and uncaring father, Rose is forced to travel to Tresco from far away in search of employment, and is still mourning the unexpected death of her father.
Not that anyone cares: even Edward is only interested in her as a distraction from his worries. At least he’s civil to her: Cynthia really shines in the moments when she interacts with Rose, treating her as the help, a viewpoint that initially seems uncaring and mean but eventually presents itself as arguably correct. As with Never Let Me Go, the proles know their place and accept it. Social mobility is fine as something to aspire to, but in the moment, it’s best to ignore it. Cynthia and Patricia’s treatment of Rose is cruel, but it rings with uncomfortable truth. Of course, that’s not to say that Cynthia is in the right: she spends much of the film sucking the joy out of rooms in much the same way as Anne Hathaway’s Kym from Rachel Getting Married. The best scene in the movie sees the five characters visiting a local restaurant for a mid-afternoon meal, during which Cynthia’s behaviour tips over into obnoxious tyranny, her impatience with the trip and her companions mutating into boorish behaviour. Hogg is only ever going to give us hints as to why she is behaving the way she does, but it’s enough to realise she is suppressing terrible emotional pain and acting out like a spoiled brat. The British audience visibly shrank and moaned throughout: I chewed my knuckles in anxious horror.
As Daisyhellcakes pointed out afterwards, the whole movie plays out like the Eddie Izzard routine about British movies (the first minute of this clip), but it is also genuinely insightful. As with Never Let Me Go there is no real emotional connection to be had with the characters: they’re all quite ridiculous, and we never really get to experience their emotional state in a raw way. It’s telling that both movies hide the few scenes of emotional expression: Tommy’s howl of agony is almost drowned out by the diagetic and non-diagetic soundtrack, and the outbursts of Patricia and Cynthia in Archipelago occur off-screen and are recorded by mics that reduce their words to barely recognisable gibberish. We’re British, you see. We don’t do that kind of thing. What makes Archipelago a success is that it holds its focus on this gap between inner and outer life, never needing to rely on a voiceover a la Never Let Me Go to reveal the desires of its characters. Those desires are unimportant: it’s their suppression that is key. Hogg’s skill at skewering that conflict in the British psyche is admirable: let’s hope she soon gets the following she rightly deserves.
Both movies captured the dreadful emotional stasis caused when you know your place and feel you have no choice to accept it, though neither of them were interested in expressing the pain one feels at this situation in anything other than an oblique way. Not so Takashi Miike’s mind-boggling 13 Assassins, which would’ve been my favourite movie at the festival if I hadn’t had my brain stabbed to happy death by Black Swan. Nevertheless it was a close call: Miike’s incredible achievement is essential viewing for anyone who has ever enjoyed an action movie, mostly because it isn’t a winking joke. It could have been the samurai version of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (no disrespect to that balls-out classic), but thankfully we get a serious-minded tale of the end of an era, as the feudal system of 19th Century Japan leads to ossification, corruption and madness.
The rigid laws – both implicit and explicit – of the Shogunate system have allowed an intolerable situation to develop: the utterly demented Lord Narigatsu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) is terrorising the land and considering bringing war back to peaceful Japan. His actions — which include using a family as target practice, and the brutal maiming of a woman he then turns into a slave for his amusement — are truly deplorable, but his relation to the Shogun means no one can directly act against him without bringing great shame upon themselves. All that is left is futile gesture: the movie begins with one court member committing seppuku in protest. It’s an act of dishonour that forces his compatriots to hatch a plan: to convince one honorable man to bear that dishonour, and find a way to stop the evil lord.
Shinzaemon Shimada (a thrilling performance from Kôji Yakusho) is a lower-tier samurai, deemed expendable by those in power, but shrewd enough to grasp that while his act will be a suicidal one, it will be honorable in a way that is not formally recognised by Japanese society. Courtiers and heads of important families take turns attempting to persuade Shinzaemon to betray his loyalty to the Shogun by revealing Narigatsu’s evil deeds, his murder and rape and disfigurement of those around him, actions borne of madness and boredom. Disgusted to the point of fury, Shinzaemon forms a group of samurai and ronin who understand the importance of the insurrection, and a trap is created to dispose of Narigatsu. The main obstacle in his plan is the Lord’s protector, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), a former friend of our hero who is more wedded to the concept of respect for the Shogun, to the point that he is willing to defend the odious lord even at the cost of his life.
That’s the first hour of the movie: a stately and reflective series of negotiations that get to the heart of this society and the contradictions therein. The order of the Shogunate system is strong enough to bring about a period of peace in Japan, but so rigid that there is no way to correct difficulties without dooming oneself. Shinzaemon and his band of warriors are willing to break that rule of law, but the cost might not just be their lives: the samurai code could die with them, bringing about the end of the tradition, and the collapse of Japan’s feudal system. Another hour depicting that quandary would have been amazing too: Miike does an incredible job of exploring the nature of this ideological conflict. Nevertheless, what follows is on another level altogether: a 45-minute sequence set in a town that has been transformed into a deadly trap, as Shinzaemon and his 12 assassins face off against over 200 enemies in a protracted battle that is staged with the precision of a master and the energy of a maniac. Miike truly delivers, and then some.
Livestock burns, buildings and people explode, a river runs red with blood, and mutilated bodies pile up, while the battle progresses from orderly precision to chaotic skirmish through to madness. The final moments of the battle are terrifying, with characters succumbing to exhaustion and insanity before the final showdown between the best of the old order and the corrupted offspring that jeopardises everything. It’s a bravura setpiece the likes of which I’ve never seen: an attempt to find the original version by Eiichi Kudo has failed, and so I have no idea how long the final battle in that lasts. Here it is lengthy, but paced so the ebb and flow of action feels like structure. It’s a movie in itself, almost, and left me reeling in my seat and suppressing the urge to cheer throughout — one powerful moment that shows Shinzaemon unfurling a scroll nearly made my brain combust with joy (you’ll understand when you see it). For that, and for numerous other ridiculously exciting moments, 13 Assassins is officially the Acme of Badass Cinema.
The only problem I have with it is a choice in the final moments of the film, which I won’t spoil here. I’m not really sure what Miike was trying to do with the last conversation, other than to note the passing of the feudal era and the Way of the Samurai, but his method of doing so was out of odds with every other perfectly-judged choice. Still, it’s not enough to ruin what is a remarkable achievement. It is truly the thinking person’s action movie, a flawlessly constructed band-of-warriors movie that rightly crushes Stallone’s incoherent and lazy Expendables into the dirt, and stands as the best samurai film since Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai. Whenever it comes out near you, do everything you can to ensure you see it.