If I were to pick an “it” girl and boy right now, by which I mean an actress and actor who are receiving media attention and celebrity more for their star potential than for their achievements on the screen thus far, I might pick Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Mulligan caused quite a stir (and rightly so) with her performance in last year’s “An Education;” Garfield drew a lot of attention playing Jesse Eisenberg’s best friend/enemy in “The Social Network” this fall, and is rumored to be the next Peter Parker in the upcoming “Spider-Man” reboot. Both are talented actors at the beginning of what ought to be long and memorable careers; watching them both on the screen, I can’t help but think more about what they might do in the future than about what they’re doing right now.
So I think it was an extraordinary act of genius to cast then in the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Never Let Me Go.” This is a “soft” sci-fi movie that pretends to be about the ethics of cloning and organ harvesting, a la “The Island,” but several pieces that are missing — there’s no autocratic, faux-benevolent villain; indeed there’s no villain at all. We never even meet the people who receive the donated organs to extend their lives. “Never Let Me Go” has taken great pains to write the villain out of the story; he/she is both anonymous and omnipotent. That’s because the villain of “Never Let Me Go” isn’t really the system, it’s death itself. Death, that anonymous, omnipotent villain none of us can escape, or rebel against, or defeat.
But there have been a ton of depressing movies made about death. What makes “Never Let Me Go” stand apart is the juxtaposition of watching young, exciting actors filled with life and vitality face the inevitability of their own expiration. Really, the plot of “Never Let Me Go” in its basics, isn’t all that different from what people of a certain age are facing every day – the slow degradation of their bodies, the illnesses that take away their strength and resilience, the awareness that it will really only take one or two more events – a heart attack, a stroke, another bout of cancer or pneumonia – and their lives will be over. These days, this is how most of our lives end – not tragically or suddenly, but slowly and gradually, one organ failing at a time. It’s sobering to see this happening to people in their seventies and eighties; it’s shocking to see it happening to people in their twenties.
In our culture we celebrate, perhaps even worship, youth. We like our movie stars between the ages of 25-35. Any member of the Screen Actor’s Guild will tell you that it becomes much harder to find work after 35, and it’s almost impossible after 40, especially for women. A few (like Tom Wilkinson and Charlotte Rampling) make it as character actors; most often, they’re seen playing the parental/authority figures, who support or resist the much younger leads. Even fewer (like Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks) manage to survive on the strength of their charisma, but they’re hardly A-listers anymore. And where’s Meg Ryan these days? Or Demi Moore? Kevin Costner? Sharon Stone? Michael Keaton? Kim Basinger? The list goes on. These actors and actresses are hardly old, but they’re too old for the movies. They no longer represent the life and vitality that we call “beauty”; we don’t want to deal with their wrinkles, spare tires, and gray hair.
Indeed, “Never Let Me Go” could be seen as a sort of indirect metaphor for the acting careers of its stars. As each character in the film makes a “donation,” they grow closer to death, no matter how good they feel, or even look. They’re approaching “completion.” By the end of the film, only one of these promising young actors is left standing. One wonders: how many “donations” do Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley have in them before they’ve completed their acting careers? Most twentysomething actors or actresses hardly survive three or four movies. To be honest, I think all three of these actors have a better chance of sticking around than most, and Keira Knightley, at 25, has already shown that she has box office stamina. But does anyone expect to see Lindsey Lohan in anything worthwhile ever again? Or Toby Maguire? Hayden Christianson? Dakota Fanning? It’s safe to say that these young stars, if they haven’t “completed” already, are one or two movies away from doing so. Perhaps the nameless, faceless people who receive the donations in “Never Let Me Go” are supposed to be us, the movie audience – these actors, with all their youth, beauty and vitality, make us feel young, for a little while. And when they’re too old to do that anymore, we’ll find others who will.