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Thursday, February 17, 2011


Mumview: Never Let Me Go

Brief summary

Okay. I'm going to break with reviewing manners and say what the 'secret' is. I did that once before because I thought the movie deserved to be spoiled, but that's not the case here: this is a remarkable film that I think I'll never forget. It's simply that the 'secret' of the story is not the secret of this film's power. There's really no point keeping it hidden, so I'm just going to talk about it so I can talk about it properly.

Okay, you were warned.

*looks around*

Are they gone? Okay, here I go.

In an alternative present, a 'medical breakthrough' has been found that massively increases lifespans - for most people. For the 'donor children' of Hailsham and other institutions like it, life will end in their twenties when they 'complete' after their first, or second, or third, or fourth organ donation. We follow the story of Kathy H., her lost love Tommy and Ruth, the girl who wins him away from Kathy for a time as they live out their brief span - before the donations begin...

Does it work the way it should?

Compelled organ donation is a small but definite subclass of story. (One that my current novel treats of, in fact, and which I shall hopefully finish once I'm getting more sleep: writing a novel is, it turns out, a massive feat of memory, and one that right now I don't quite think I have enough mental RAM for.) On one level it's very simple: it's a story of slavery, of utter disempowerment, and one can go the Michael Bay route and tell a simple yarn of rebellion. Apparently some critics have been irritated by the lack of rebelliousness our fragile heroes show - but frankly I'm startled they'd miss the point that badly.

We live in a disempowered world, a world ruled by commerce and corporations, where serfdom takes many forms. Given a big enough predicament, a faceless and constant enough oppression, and we often do nothing more than try to enjoy what drops of pleasure we can catch out of life while we still have it. In an early scene, the children at Hailsham school are wild with excitement to be delivered a 'bumper crop' of goods to buy, goods that we the audience can see is a collection of worthless, broken junk, the detritus that nobody else wants becoming their festival. That's the film. Never Let Me Go is a reflection on mortality, not an adventure story, and the characters' docility - a passive acceptance of their fate combined with an ever-present hope that they might be able to postpone the inevitable just a little longer - is born less of weakness than of a lifelong despair so deep they can barely see it. The performances from Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and an unusually unHollywoodish turn from Keira Knightley are all delicate and strong, conveying a perfect mix of unspoiled, innocent hope and helpless resignation.

The visuals are almost another character in their own right, and add to the film immeasurably. It's full of beauty: the beauty of the world, and particularly the beauty of England - the real England, or at least the real rural England of rain-soft skies and damp wellingtons and knitted hats and green, tree-fringed fields. It's a world that exists beyond the characters, that contains them but dwarfs them, but is so full of beauty that it's anguishingly clear why it would be so hard to leave it.

Naturalism is a constant companion, but at the same time, we see the world only as a collection of places: society is absent from this story, present only in the heavy hand it lays upon the children's necks. Just occasionally we glimpse it through the weird, upside-down view 'ordinary' people take of the donor children, so normal to themselves, so alien to others, but for the most part, the world is an unmediated place, strangely vivid in its emptiness, beyond anyone's reach.

Ready for this?

I haven't read Ishiguro's original novel so I can't comment on how good an adaptation it is, but on its own merits, it's a film full of quiet power. I went in carefully avoiding the spoilers, but in fact there's no particular reason to, as all the revelations were pretty guessable from the outset - but the important thing is that this is a film where guessing the revelations doesn't matter. From corner to corner, the screen is filled with inevitability: it's all about knowing what's coming and being unable to prevent it.

Life among the groundlings

The babies were not the only ones crying by the end.

It's a bleak story by any standards, but there's something particularly tragic about it from my new perspective: this is a story of uncherished children, children that are not loved, children that are not protected. They can love each other, and dream of their love having the power to protect each other at least a little bit, but the donor children are utter orphans, devoid even of normal parents, never mind a society.

So, any good?

Oh my goodness yes. This is a short review, partly because there's a limit to how much I can discuss it but largely because I feel a bit speechless. This is a painful film but nonetheless a life-affirming one, haunting and elegiac and beautiful.

Friday, February 04, 2011


Mumview: Brighton Rock

Short summary

Well, you know the story, right? Graham Greene wrote it in 1938, John Boulting directed it in 1947. Young Pinkie Brown is trying to take over his Brighton gang, a naive young waitress is the only witness who could get them done for murder, so he courts and marries her. Is he going to kill her? And does God hate us all?

Does it work the way it should?

Remakes are the bane of Hollywood. They have enough brand recognition that they make their money back - and since I went to Brighton Rock I have limited carping rights on this one - but there's no law that says a remake has to be bad, and this one had some pretty classic material to work with.

What would a remake of an adaptation of a book have to do to be worth the celluloid? Fundamentally it would have to give us a take on the book that the previous film missed. Now, the original movie didn't miss out on strong performances, striking cinematography, or suspenseful drama, so the new film was always up against stiff competition. Director Rowan Joffe moves the action from the 30s to the 60s to give 'a more modern feel', according to the note at the end of the current printing of the novel, though why a modern feel is necessary in a period piece is an open question. In practice this means radio announcements talking about violent youth and staged battles between mods and rockers, but the theme of youth violence doesn't really take. Partly this is because Sam Riley as Pinkie doesn't look like the seventeen-year-old he supposedly is. Partly it's because youth violence involves youth in groups rather than a single boy trying to cut his way through a man's world: Pinkie is isolated from his own generation, so why should its antics throw any kind of perspective on him, or his on it? But partly it's because Pinkie already has a theme, and it's not youthful insurrection: it's sin. That's the entire weight of the book, what lifts it above the level of its pulp-thriller plot: Greene's distinctively depressive, sour-potatoes Catholicism, with its dark God and gristly physicality and bleak, conscience-twisting doom. Pinkie has a young man's fanaticism and sexual awkwardness, but he's no voice of a generation, and while a film doesn't have to reproduce a book exactly, Pinkie's themes are inextricably woven into the plot. He can hardly speak for his generation if he never meets it, and come to that, if his whole generation is busy fighting, the gang's panic about having killed someone looks rather mealy-mouthed and moderate, which is hardly the way to make a thriller thrilling.

If this was the way the film wanted to go, changes could have been made, but traces of the Catholicism remain. They just come up in conversation occasionally and then wander away again. Where the original Pinkie is a faith-twisted ruin, sexually revolted and sin-obsessed and stuck in marriage with a girl who disgusts him with the destruction of her soul his only consolation, and the original Rose is a drab picture of 'hopeless resentment', a downtrodden housewife before her time, what this film version chooses to imply, and eventually makes explicit, is that this Pinkie actually does have feelings for Rose. Mixed feelings, yes, but more a fragile, unacknowledged love than a cold, manipulative hatred; we finally hear his friend tell Ida, the avenging angel of the story who pursues justice against the murderous Pinkie throughout, that Pinkie was 'sweet on [Rose]' until Ida's 'meddling' panicked him into deciding to kill her instead. (Nice to know it's always the woman's fault; Pinkie would probably approve.) This is a story of doomed love rather than doom.

This is the key to what's new about this adaptation: it is, as Pinkie would say, 'soft'. It can't bear the idea of Pinkie viciously preying upon an innocent girl's soul, so it softens his feelings towards her. In doing this, it goes right in the opposite direction from the one change to the original movie that would have been genuinely refreshing: it refuses to keep Greene's 'worst horror of all' ending.

At the end of the novel poor Rose walks off to find a record player to play what she thinks will be Pinkie's wedding-day message of love and we know will say, 'God damn you, you little bitch, why can't you go back home for ever and leave me be?' The original film couldn't bear this, and substituted a device that pulled punches but at least had the merit of being ingenious: Pinkie records a message saying that he knows she wants to hear 'I love you' but actually he hates her, but when Rose plays the record, it's gotten scratched, and jumps the needle over and over: 'I love you ... I love you ... I love you...' Since we all like to think we're tougher than our ancestors, a really modern remake would have stuck to Graham's horrible conclusion, but in fact the film simply pinches its predecessor's soft end and leaves us with the same stuck record - which can't even get marks for ingenuity this time.

What's different, though, is the emphasis. The original film had no problem acknowledging religion and damnation as major themes, but they're mere background detail here. The original Rose is told to consider 'the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God', and the damaged record is a miracle to protect her from the sin of despair, perhaps, a false belief that Pinkie felt love so that Rose can hold on to her faith in human goodness. God really doesn't get much conversation in this version, though; Rose has a brief conversation about 'miracles', and when the record skips the camera pans up to look at a cross on the wall. A miracle! But why, exactly? Does God think it's okay to protect a murderer as long as you're in love with him?

Maybe God doesn't, but God isn't, to use a Catholic phrase, a real presence in this film. When Boulting's camera moves to the crucifix, it's almost as if God is saying 'I love you' to Rose, but it doesn't work that way in Joffe's version because God interests it less than tragic love. Greene's God is not love, but in this film, love is God.

Ready for this?

Okay, so I'm sounding like an inflexible purist. Yes, I've read the book and seen the original movie, so I went in with a lot of expectations. Actually, though, it was the trailer that decided me: it was handsome-looking and clearly suggested that they might be going for a tragic-love angle rather than the original sin fest, as it were. And why not? A tragic love story can be a marvellous thing.

But considering the great emphasis on passion and drama, the film is curiously unmoving; I found myself disappointed in expectations that were based on shots from the movie itself rather than just the book and previous film. It's hard to identify a single reason for this, but I don't think it can be entirely attributed to the circumstances under which I viewed it...

Life among the groundlings

I have lately discovered the second most important possession a new mother can have. The most important is a collection of no fewer than three hundred and twenty-seven muslins and preferably more, but the second most important is an inflatable pillow that can be retrieved from the nappy bag when you have to nurse on the go. Newly equipped, my young companion and I had our most peaceful viewing experience so far; however, others were not so tranquil and there was fairly constant wailing from several directions.

This meant I missed certain lines of dialogue, but the really notable thing was that I kept reflecting that there was a lot more passion in the babies' voices than up on the screen.

The movie is well shot, full of sweeping vistas and nice framing. The handsome cinematography is actually part of the problem: despite a David Fincherish green tinge to everything and some carefully squalid interiors, the style is at its best filming the elegant silhouettes of Brighton Pier or the beautiful white cliffs of the coast. It's just too nice: it would work fine with a softer storyline, but there's something inescapably sordid about marrying a girl to stop her witnessing against you, and the graceful visuals seem not to have noticed. I suspect the music may be a problem too: I seldom notice music during a film, but there was one sequence that stood out even to me because the music became almost comical, reminiscent of nothing so much as the apartment-break-in scene in Manhattan Murder Mystery minus the breathless tension, and the rest of the music seemed to be rather bland swelling violins that carried neither the suspense nor the grandness of the original movie. In its rendering it feels like a film that doesn't really understand the story it's telling, whether the story is Greene's grim original or the tragic romance Joffe seems to be aiming for: neither works, because there's a bland attractiveness to their presentation that undercuts the possibility for real intensity.

So, any good?

Bottom line: this is a remake of the film, not a new adaptation of the novel, and a remake, not a reinterpretation. That, we didn't need. The original film is still a classic, but while Joffe looks like a promising director visually and I'd like to see him handle material that actually suits his style, I'd expect the remake to go the way of the 1976 King Kong and be more or less forgotten in time while John Boulting's film endures.


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