When it comes to arts journalism, film critics have it easiest. Insulated by all the glamour of the silver screen, it’s easy to remain indifferent to the people whose work you’re assessing. For this reason, coming face to face with them and the stories of their awesome labours at a press conference probably ups the likelihood of a bit of sympathy and a favourable review. On these grounds this morning’s press conference for Never Let Me Go was quite unnecessary. Nevertheless, the event left no doubt as to the film makers’ commitment to the project. One came away with the impression that the film was shot knee-deep in heavily-annotated copies of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel—the cast and crew either locked in happy embraces or weeping inconsolably, stopping only to shoot the odd scene or bow reverentially to the author.
Never Let Me Go begins at Hailsham, a picturesque boarding school of the 1970s. The scene might seem idyllic, but all is not well. Hailsham’s students are “donors” bred for their bodily organs. With scant hope of living beyond 30, three of them find themselves in a life-changing love triangle. To sensitive Kathy’s (Carey Mulligan’s) dismay, by the time they leave Hailsham for shared accommodation in the countryside, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and the jealous Ruth (Keira Knightley) are a well-established couple. From other donors they hear a rumour that lovers might be granted a stay of execution, subject to some sort of test, and Kathy and Ruth are forced to re-evaluate both their relationship with Tommy and the prospect of a few more years’ doomed existence.
The story is splendid, an elegant blend of heartbreak and existentialism. The simplest science-fiction plot can easily produce a rampant undergrowth of backstory and expository dialogue, but NLMG keeps these to a bare minimum, leaving the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. How did it come to this? Could they have children if they wanted? Why don’t they run away? The film makes only the subtlest concessions to these questions, thus demanding a certain kind of suspended disbelief that skilfully works to bring us into Kathy’s world.
Alex Garland’s adaptation is virtually transparent, and the cast, led by Mulligan’s extremely consistent Kathy, makes a great ensemble. The only weakness is Keira Knightley, whose character never quite becomes sympathetic—a pity considering a chunk of pathos depends on her doing so. Towards the end it’s always Kathy who carries the emotional weight, even in the context of others’ more explicit despair. As she delivered her closing monologue, all but the steeliest-hearted members of the press were left blubbing their eyes out. The film is not perfect, but terrific nonetheless, and—although not all Prospect readers may be grateful for the tip—a perfect date movie.
It’s not all been so emotional (or indeed so good). The last week has seen a huge range of films put through the press screening mill in preparation for the festival’s opening night—and they’re still going, into next week and beyond.
The screening of Former Young British Artist Gillian Wearing’s foray into the territory of reality TV, Self Made, managed to divide the audience. In the film, volunteers who responded to a newspaper advert to star in a short film (either as themselves or as someone else), are put through a method acting course, with the result that they more or less have their fantasies acted out on screen. The course is conducted by a man who could be the storybook version of smug metropolitan bohemia, all black polo neck and flat cap and horn-rimmed glasses, but who leads the volunteers on a journey of self-discovery that ends in genuinely shocking scenes.
Other highlights included Tabloid, the documentary tale of Joyce Mackinney, the former Miss Wyoming who allegedly kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend after he went to London to proselytize. Errol Morris’s film has plenty of fun with the story—though sometimes, distractingly, at Mackinney’s expense—and he unearths some brilliantly prurient tabloid journalists from the Mirror and Express to tell how each paper competed to cover the story. Tabloid is the kind of lightweight documentary that is happy to take everyone at their word; it makes entertaining viewing but the title may mislead anyone hoping for a really intelligent skewering of red-top best practice.
Another is Meek’s Cutoff, the latest from Kelly Reichardt, who famously earned a six-star review in Time Out for her last effort Wendy and Lucy. Meek’s is the slow, often silent tale of a group of pioneers who are dying of thirst on the plains of Oregon, having entrusted their fate to a self-styled guide named Meek, whose bravado is put to the test when they encounter a lone Indian who may be able to help them. The ethics of the frontier make for fertile drama and Reichardt has an eye for gorgeous photography but this is highly straight-faced stuff. Michelle Williams, who’s here in a lead role, is magnetic.
Unfortunately a few fine vignettes and a lot of histrionics weren’t enough to save The Temptation of St Tony, Estonia’s promised answer to Fellini. Bubbling under, I’ve heard strong recommendations for Archipelago, Hands Up, and The Arbor, as well as, sadly, generally indifferent reaction to comedian Will Ferrell’s serious role as a despairing alcoholic in Raymond Carver adaptation Everything Must Go.
After weeks of build-up, the festival proper begins today. Stay peeled to this blog for more…