Tag Archives: Keira Knightley

Never Let Me Go

I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go. But I’ve heard good things, and after seeing the film version, I’m pretty certain the novel’s wide acclaim is well-deserved. If the book is at all as haunting, poetic, and profound as the film, I can definitely see what all the hype was about.

Never Let Me Go is a film that sticks with you, packing a punch perhaps more in remembrance than in the actual experience of watching it. It’s a startling, unexpected film, mostly in the matter-of-fact manner of its genre-bending exposition. It’s a love story set against a sci-fi backdrop, with the elegance of an Austen novel and the quietly somber mood of an Ozu film. It’s a jarring experience, and a profoundly moving one.

I reviewed the film for Christianity Today, which you can read in full here. Here’s how my review starts:

Never Let Me Go is one of those films that feels deceptively simple or perhaps too abrupt on first viewing, but which broadens and deepens and sticks around in memory long after you leave the theater. The film, directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and based on the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), is a genre-bending, tender, and provocative gem that should provide plenty of discussion fodder for thoughtful filmgoers.

The story begins at Hailsham, a boarding school somewhere in rural England, full of beautiful, cheerful children who paint pictures in classrooms, play cricket in the field, and sing songs about how great Hailsham is. It’s an idyllic community, but something feels off. The students don’t seem quite normal (and why no mention of any parents?). One day a rogue teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), speaks up and gravely informs the students in her class that none of them will grow up to be actors, artists, teachers, or anything. None of them will live past adulthood. Miss Lucy is immediately fired, but the secrets of Hailsham can’t be hid forever. As the students grow older, they learn the truth of what Miss Lucy alluded to.

(Read the rest of the review here)



A few brief thoughts on this film, which I saw last night. First of all, it is just as exquisitely made as Joe Wright’s last film, 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. Like that film (also starring Keira Knightly and based on a beloved book), Atonement is chalk full of sumptuous costumes, sets, and luxuriant camera movement. The film is as stylish and artistically superior as anything you’ll see this year.

There is one incredibly beautiful single shot sequence in particular—at the bombed-out beach city of Dunkirk. It’s at least five minutes long and the roving camera effortlessly captures an eye-popping array of fluid sights and sounds. It’s one of those sequences that only the cinematic artform can capture, and at times like these the film offers something Ian McEwan’s novel cannot: a jaw-dropping experience of sight, sound, space and time.

But more than the striking artistry of this film (and its great performances), I was most affected by the final ten minutes in which-without spoiling it—the entire story is thrown into doubt. Or, I should say, the film re-defines itself as more than just an epic love story, but as a meditation on the nature of art and storytelling.

What are the personal or psychological motivations to tell stories or make art? Is it for the benefit of others? Or is it to make amends with ourselves and atone for our former sins? And in telling stories, is fidelity to “how it was” really as important as making the story as whole and fulfilling as possible?

In addition to raising all of these questions, Atonement seems to be emphasizing the formalist split between story and plot (fabula and syuzhet, to use Russian formalist terminology). That is, the “reality” of what the author intends to express (the “plot”) and the seemingly arbitrary interpretation/construction of the reader or viewer (the “story”). With a film like Atonement, there are at least three realities going on at any given moment: the reality of what actually happened (presumably in the life of the author), the reality of the author’s portrayal of it (which in this case is admittedly skewed and subjective), and the reality of the audience (which is always different, viewer to viewer). Atonement weaves a gorgeous, epic and tragic tale, but it intentionally undermines itself by questioning the truthfulness of perspective, memory, and reconstructed reality.

Oddly, after I left the theater my thoughts went to Harry Potter. Specifically I was thinking about J.K. Rowling’s recent announcement that the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is and always has been a homosexual. When she made the stunning announcement I immediately thought, “hey, what right does she have to make Dumbledore gay?” But then I thought that just because she says he is doesn’t mean he is in my construction of that world. After all, the “reality” of Potter world in Rowling’s mind is not necessarily ever the same as mine, or any other reader. Art—even if it is objectified (and mass-reproduced)—is always subjectively experienced and interpreted. Thus, its “reality” is never as concrete as we think (or hope) it is. Rowling can say Dumbledore is gay all she wants—and even write him that way if she wishes… but the fact is, he is only an idea on pages. He is whatever the reader makes him to be.

The word “atonement” means “at one” and is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.” In the novel and film, the character of Briony (who is ultimately revealed to be the author of the novel, Atonement) is trying to achieve a peace and at-oneness by “playing God” and reconciling herself to the worlds she has shattered. But the tragedy of it all is that she is only “God” within the pages of her fictional accounts and reparative revisionism. Fiction can help heal, but it can never alter history. Or maybe it can—depending on how you define “history.”