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What Does It Take to be Human?

Never Let Me Go
What Does It Take to be Human?

By Drew Trotter

In a year in which Scarlett Johansson has made no less than three movies where she portrays either a disembodied operating system (Her), an alien (Under the Skin) or a human with super-charged mental powers (Lucy), all of which explore what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, perhaps it is worthwhile to look at an older movie that looks at this question from another perspective. The problem is that to write about Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go with the question of human nature in mind is to risk ruining the movie’s reveal for the reader. The alternative, however, is not to promote this extraordinary film with three of Britain’s finest young actors and based on a novel by one of Britain’s greatest writers, so I shall do what I can.

The Booker-nominated novel of the same name is by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). Ishiguro is well-known for his gentle, quiet style; his other novel transferred to film, The Remains of the Day (novel 1989, film 1993), may contain the most heart-felt scene in all of film history. Never Let Me Go with three young adults at its center has the same theme of sweet, sad relationships between characters kept from the emotional freedom of joy by circumstance, in part due to personal limitations, in part due to external conditions beyond the control of those characters.

Or is their imprisonment beyond their control? One of the fascinating questions of the movie is why Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, played respectively by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, never try to break out of their situation, refuse to do what they are told to do, leave and make new lives for themselves. They are given the freedom of movement that would seem to make that a real choice so the themes of human freedom, choice, and their relation to self-sacrifice figure deeply in the film, but distinctly in the background. Such options are never discussed by the characters in the film, and remain entirely for the viewer to ponder. Ishiguro has said that the story was developed in part in response to his finding out that patients who are told they only have so long to live rarely go try to climb Mt. Everest or do something else on their bucket list, but instead try to hold onto the regularities of their daily life, as if to defeat death by continuing on with life as they know it. With a slightly different slant, the film assumes the truth of this idea and sucks the viewer into its world with heartbreaking efficiency.

Central to the film’s success, too, is its believable story of a young adult triangle with jealousy, love, forgiveness and competition all prominent in the actions of the three, while the larger question of their purpose on earth hangs in the background, always governing what they are doing. Drawing the audience into its realistic portrayal of what it means to grow up, fall in love, be disappointed in love and other aspects of maturing, the film achingly portrays these common actions through uncommon performances. Mulligan particularly as the “carer” Kathy H. brings a subtlety where a simple look away or half-smile speaks volumes. As recognizable as all three of these actors are from later roles, they disappear into the personalities they are portraying with a grace and a sympathy that is remarkable. The movie is worth seeing if only for that.

But that is not the only reason to see Never Let Me Go. Christians generally do not have a common point of contact any longer with their fellow human beings in the area of the existence of God or of the supernatural. It is in a discussion of humanity, what the nature and purpose of mankind actually are, that we can help others see the validity of Christian faith as a description of the way things really are, and this film helps facilitate this discussion in superb ways. Get a group together, watch Never Let Me Go, and discuss. It will be a sad and difficult experience, but an immensely rewarding one.

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