Nobody Wants Your Pancreas, Keira Knightly
Okay, to be fair, Keira Knightly was perfectly cast. When I saw her in the
trailer I was worried. I'm still annoyed she was cast as a romantic lead in Atonement.
gorgeous woman, but I've always felt she has the kind of face only a
masochist could love. The main thing
her eyes. Black as the howling void, it's like whatever they're looking
at could shrivel up and blow
away and it wouldn't move her to lift an eyebrow. Watching the movie,
my heart went out to the transplant recipient who winds up with those
scary witch eyes.
But that's clearly why
they cast her: for her unsympathetic face. If you doubt it, consider
that the girl they cast as her younger self has the same quality,
without being the spitting image of Ms. Knightly. And by the end of
the movie, even if the character were nothing but thin-lipped
hatred for everyone and everything, it would be hard to
blame her. If you leave the theater thinking
about the two lovers, Ruth is the sort of character you find yourself
thinking about much later--like the vampire's roommate in those Let the Right Me In movies.
Kathy may allow brave tears to roll down her adorable cheeks, and Tommy
may yell and wave his arms around trying to punch the Cosmos, but Ruth
is the embodiment of a silent scream. She gives her own motives as
jealousy, but I think she hurt the people she could hurt because
she couldn't hurt the people she should hurt. If only someone had given that little girl a flamethrower.
I'm only dwelling here on Ruth's character because she's the hardest to
pry open and see inside. I wouldn't have liked this movie so much if
Tommy and Kathy's characters hadn't been even more heart-rending.
In fact, every part is perfectly cast. It was hard to
imagine how any movie could become the slow, heart-burrowing
worm that was the
novel, but Andrew Garfield (getting shafted for the second movie
in a row), Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkings
(not so happy-go-lucky now!) and above all Carey Mulligan each have at
least a quarter-novel's worth of heartbreak written on their faces
without having to say a word. The English seaside, with its bitter
grey light and hair-ruining wind, probably works even better visually
than it did in Kathy's written decriptions.
Speaking of visuals, it's strange to reflect that while the novel's brilliance lay in the way it carefully talked around
the graphic horror of it's central premise, the movie achieves a
powerful effect by going at least a little way in the opposite
direction. Sudden images of scarred and bandaged bodies are used
sparingly and with precision to smack the the audience out
of wistfulness and back toward rather more appropriate horror.
Poor Ruth in her final moments doesn't even merit the merciful cut-away
that Tommy receives. It feels like all of us, together with the
film-makers, conspired to carve her open and leave her alone on that
table. Nope, nobody ever loved you Ruth, not even out here in the
audience. But I'm glad they didn't literally cut out your heart; that
would have been a little heavy-handed. I'm already pretty suspicious
that stranded boat was some kind of symbol.
I've said in the past that I usually can't enjoy remakes or adaptations
in cases where I'm familiar with the original, because I'm endlessly
distracted by all the little changes I detect. But in retrospect, maybe
I just started saying that so people wouldn't lynch me for not loving Lord of the Rings. After seeing Let Me In
and now this movie, I've begun to suspect that maybe some adaptations
are just better than others. But there was one change in this case that
I found first distracting and then fascinating. There's a scene where
the young Kathy is listening to music (including
the song that gives the story its title), and turns--in both
versions--to find someone watching her. In the book it's Madame, who is
weeping at the sight for reasons Kathy doesn't understand until much,
much later. In the movie it's Ruth. At first I didn't like this change.
In the book, Madame's grief as she watches Kathy has huge thematic
importance. It's the one opportunity in the story for the
rest of mankind to shed a few tears for the Devil's bargain it has
made. And why do we need Ruth watching, anyway? Do we really need to
further establish her jealousy? Well, upon further reflection, maybe we
do. Or rather, what might need to be established is the nature
of Ruth's jealousy. Sure, she's jealous of Kathy because someone loves
Kathy. But maybe the point in this scene is that she's also jealous of
Kathy because Kathy loves someone. Ol' hard-luck Ruth not only never
found someone to love her, but also never felt love herself. So
one way of interpreting this change is that a scene which in the
book is about the relationship between the characters and the external
world has been replaced with a scene about the internal relationships
between those characters.
And this gets at the question which for me hangs over both the book and
the movie. To what extent should this story be understood as personal;
to what extent is it allegorical; to what extent political? Okay,
clearly there's an allegorical layer. But is it a personal allegory or
a political one? The movie seems anxious to steer us toward the
personal. A line has been added at the very end -- the one line I
would've deleted from the script. In a bit of screenwriter
sock-puppetry that should earn her a high-five from Rashida Jones'
character in The Social Network, Kathy reflects that she and the other Donors aren't so very different from the rest of us. We
all stumble out of the fool's paradise of childhood onto a
slaughterhouse conveyor-belt that no one can stop. We all have to watch as the world slowly saps
our vitality and that of our loved ones before finally destroying us.
This interpretation helps explain why the characters in the
movie never pick up Kalashnikovs or need to be hunted down
through leaky old buildings by an exhausted Harrison Ford. Or
rather, it explains why their complacency isn't
explained: the story isn't all that concerned with seriously exploring
its nominal science fiction premise. If it were, I think we'd need to
hear more from the rest of this fictional society. After all, if those
organs are being used to save dying children then a strict Utilitarian
might be forced to defend the whole system on moral grounds. But please
don't ask me how many children I would sacrifice to save Carey
Mulligan. You don't want to know and neither do I.
Still, institutionalized organ theft is too provocative and
morally barbed an idea to fade away into the fuzzy allegorical glow. I mean, if the
kids were dragged into the woods by unseen monsters when they
turned 25 or suddenly became mannequins or something I'd say yeah,
sure, it's basically an episode of the Twilight Zone
that's really about the tragic brevity of life and I shouldn't get
caught up in monster/mannequin logistics. But you can't just toss in
ideas like human cloning, life extension, and organ farming without
significantly shifting your thematic center of gravity. These are big,
raw, current social issues. And yet, as I say, the story seems to be
missing some pieces if we try to interpret it as a serious ethical
thought experiment. Is this ambiguity a defect, or is it
brilliance? Or am I just clueless?
Finally, as someone who's interested in interactive storytelling, this movie
brought something else to mind. Roger Ebert is infamous in the video
game world for supposedly believing that video games can never be
"Art," precisely because they
are interactive. A movie like this might be used as an exhibit in
making his case. Part of the agony of watching the three main
characters suffer, waste precious years of their lives and finally die
is that they seem so close but we can do nothing to help them. If only
we could just get our arms through the screen to wrap Kathy H in a big
bear hug. But no.
Of course, I could point out that life itself is an example of a fully
interactive medium which is full of heartbreak we are powerless to
prevent. So maybe I don't fully understand Ebert's point. But ask
yourself how much money you would have been willing to spend, as you
watched the ending of Never Let Me Go, if you could
enter the screen, land your helicopter next to Carey Mulligan and shout
"Hop in! We're getting the f*ck out of here!" I'm just saying there's a
lot of money to be made here if we can solve a few technical issues.
"Wait a minute," says Kathy H. as we lift off, "if you could enter the story at any point, why didn't you save Tommy or Ruth?"
"Shh," I say. "Don't try to think about it. You've been through so much. Just rest your head on my shoulder..."