Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of
the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath
of life; and the man became a living being.
What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
The big medical breakthrough came in 1952, we are told in what serves as preface to the film, and by 1967 life expectancy exceeded 100 years. After doing a double take, the viewer is expected to catch on that this story is set in an alternate universe, one in which it is apparent that there is no church or ethically concerned group or individuals that protest the system society has set up to achieve that remarkable goal of living to at least one hundred years. The film is directed by Mark Romanek from a script by Alex Garland, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel (he also wrote Remains of the Day).
The film starts out at Hailsham House, which we think at first is just another of those posh English private schools. Kathy (Isobel Meikle Small as a child, Carey Mulligan as an adult) and Ruth (Ella Purnell as child, Keira Knightley adult) are best friends. Tommy (Charlie Rowe as child, Andrew Garfield as adult) is not athletic, so he is shunned by most boys, even ridiculed at times. Kathy reaches out to him, at one time when he has been rejected and is screaming his pain, going over to try to comfort him. She receives a blow on the face from his flailing arms for her effort. However, it is Ruth who snags Tommy as a boyfriend, which Kathy accepts, keeping her disappointment to herself.
We are given a clue that all is not as it seems shortly after new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) arrives at the school. Watching the children play a type of baseball, she notices that when the ball is hit beyond the low fence, the fielder does not go to retrieve it. She asks the children why, and they tell her about the terrible fate of several children who did venture beyond the property of Hailsham. She asks if they really believe such tales, and they all solemnly affirm that they do. We begin to think that this film is something like The Village. After she has been teaching for a while, Miss Lucy addresses the class, saying that they are different, that their lives are short so that they cannot plan like other children on adult careers. In the next scene we see that she has been dismissed.
The film is narrated by the adult Kathy, who is standing looking into the operation room where Tommy is laid out on an operating table. Through a long series of flashbacks the trio’s story unfolds. We learn that the residents of Hailsham House and several other institutions have been artificially created for the purpose of keeping the rest of the population alive by donating their organs one at a time. Eventually, with so many organs missing, the donor, such as Tommy now, reaches the stage known as “completion.” Thus gradually the film’s viewers feel a rising chill as they realize that they are watching a horror story set in a cold-blooded society.
The friends live as normal a life as they can, going on from Hailsham to live in “the Cottage.” As Ruth nears her stage of “completion” she makes a confession to Kathy and attempts to atone for what she did when they lived at Hailsham House. Also Tommy has developed quite a talent for art, with his drawings often sent to some distant gallery. Later, as adults, they learn why those drawings were taken away and kept—apparently there was an on-going debate about these special children, but I will let you learn the details. This is too well crafted a film to miss! The six actors playing the main characters are excellent, as well as Charlotte Rampling as the Head Mistress and Sally Hawkins as Miss Lucy.
The film will, as mentioned earlier, remind you a little of The Village, and if you are a science fiction fan, even more of Logan’s Run. But unlike that film, no one in this one rebels, or apparently even thinks of protesting their fate. We wonder at this, and also become aware of how important is the role of the church and other ethically concerned persons can be as the science of genetics progresses. Or, in the case of this film, is it actually “regressing,” at least from a moral perspective?
For reflection/Discussion 1. Did you have rising questions about Hailsham House early in the film? Perhaps, as to why we never saw the children’s parents or families visiting, or the children going home for breaks? At what point in the film did you become aware that the school was “different” ?
2. What do Tommy’s drawings reveal about him and their school?
3. What do you think is the significance of the title? Of the song on the tape that Tommy gave Kathy?
4. What do you think of the way in which genetics and cloning are developing? President Bush came under fire when he blocked certain avenues of experimentation—but would you rather have a society such as in the film where, apparently anything goes?
5. What must the debate, arising from the artwork of such donors as Tommy, be about? How would good art suggest that its creator has “a soul” ?
6. What do you think of Ruth’s confession and her attempt at atonement and reconciliation?
7. How did you feel at the conclusion of the film? Kathy says (the following is a paraphrase from memory): “Maybe none of us understand what we’ve lived through, or feel that we have enough time.” How is this true for all of us? The children come to accept that their purpose in life is that they were created to sustain the lives of others. How is their acceptance of this both admirable and disturbing? What do you believe that the Christian faith teaches us our purpose in life is? Compare the two.