Boarding School Movies
There’s a sub-genre in British movies about boarding schools, that’s been added to greatly by the 8 films of Harry Potter, but more recently we’ve seen two films that mix it up with other genres. ‘Cracks’ is a film about the strange world of girls’ boarding schools in England in the 1930s which veers into all kinds of voyeuristic fun, while ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a really bleak existentialist film with a Science Fiction tinge.
Both films are, in my humble opinion, very good and worth the viewing, but I’m bringing them up together because back to back, will be the most emotionally wrenching Sunday’s viewing. These films are each tragedies that don the costume of English boarding schools but hark at very deep and disturbing issues in life. I think watching them together would make for a truly challenging viewing.
Still, I think I should go through a few things just to give you an idea of how interesting both these films are. As usual, here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.
Faulty Adult Supervision
One of the themes in cinema this side of Gen-X coming of age in the mid 1980s has been films where adult supervision is either lacking or faulty. This is more pronounced in American cinema and I have touched upon it in crits of films such as ‘Superbad’, ‘Better Off Dead’ and the ‘Back to the Future’ series. Other films include the Home Alone movies, and even the Harry Potter series swings around the theme of absent parents. There are probably sociological reasons for this narrative movement, but in most part we are asked to see these setups as abnormal. This is because in American films, there is a strong impulse to re-assemble even the most fragmented of families.
In both ‘Cracks’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’, we see the opposite where there is no hope of any family – the kids cannot reassemble that myth – so they are forced to travel the terrain of the the strangely restrictive social order of the British boarding school. In each instance, the teachers are stern, conspiratorial, distant and authoritarian, rendering the children emotionally adrift. In both films we see the children become wanton but then they conform into exerting self-control in line with the school’s discipline, which ends in tragedy.
Part of the rhetorical question in ‘Cracks’ is that if the teachers come from the same stilted mold, how can they confer anything of true value in the outside world to these children? Similarly, in ‘Never Let Me Go’, we find that the teachers’ ultimate interest is not in education at all, but in the production of a commodity to suit the consumerist society and its never ending wants. In neither case can the adults said to be ethical or good – and I don’t think this is the simple case of people getting back at their own boarding school experiences, but in fact a deeper despair about the meaning of education in our own society.
We associate the British culture with the whole reserve and stiff upper lip thing and yet these characters in both films are extremely expressive of their feelings. There is a sense in both films that because the system squeezes so hard, the feelings cannot help but pour out. And when they do, they just don’t seem like ordinary emotions but outpourings of primal rage and lust.
Eva Green’s Miss G is a tremendous creation in fiction. The tremendous irony of a woman who claims to be of the world and is so distant from it, cloistered away teaching in a girl’s boarding school is already a kind of novel tragedy. The irony and her inability to escape it makes for some punishing viewing. At the end of the film you come to realise that she never grew up, that she became a teacher and guardian to these children with about as much emotional maturity as the children in her care.
Similarly, Miss Lucy, a minor character played by Sally Hawkins in ‘Never Let Me Go’ is also unable to contain her emotions as she blurts out the truth to the children. As the film progresses we come to realise the weight of her confession to the children about their short destiny. The meaning of those words circle around to the denouement, when discussing souls and art, Miss Emily played by Charlotte Rampling declares, they were looking at the art to see if the children had any souls.
Tommy in ‘Never Let Me Go’ is subject to tremendous attacks of rage. The deeper angst about his existence is simply too much. In most part he is polite and self-controlled but he cannot accept his own death until just before the end. It’s a furious kind of flame.
In both films, it’s surprising to see just how deep the feelings run and then gushes to the surface like a geyser. You wouldn’t believe it’s about reserved English people.
Exchange Of Food
The exchange of food is a very important motif in both films. Fiamma’s pastries from Spain in ‘Cracks’ at once represents her Christ-like appearance as well as presages her doom. Each meal with Fiamma is the last supper. Similarly the sharing of food is more intimate than the love-making in ‘Never Let Me Down’. This could be because sex doesn’t lead to life if you are a cloned organ donor unit, but food most certainly will be of sustenance.
‘Cracks’ spends a fair bit of time on showing food as an important social token. Food being shared immediately correlates with shared information and secrets. The party bonds the girls around food.
The flip-side of this is how dysfunctional pleasure is in both films. Miss G, for her pleasure drugs and rapes Fiamma. Not only is it transgressive, there is something craven about Miss G, not to mention the lesbian sex. Miss G clearly fears men and the outside world. Similarly, the sex depicted in ‘Never Let Me Go’ is not joyous but rather emotionally abortive. Kath, played by Carey Mulligan participates in sex vicariously by overhearing to her two best friends fuck. When she finally sleeps with Tommy, it is the most sad, mournful, depressing love scene I’ve ever seen on the screen. You’re grateful it cuts away.
Love And The Soul
Oddly enough, both films want to discuss love and the soul. In ‘Cracks’, it is assumed that without love, then the soul cannot be. Miss G’s exhortation to live with desire and for desire essentially leads her to her own demise. ‘Never Let Me Go’ is more elaborate in that it posits a litmus test wherein artistic expression is seen as the corollary for the existence of the soul. The main character Kath and her lover Tommy can only operate on the theory that love proves there is a soul. The ending runs in the opposite direction to the seeming momentum of the discourse, for Charlotte Rampling’s character essentially represents a system that has no soul, and is totally willing to condemn Kath and Tommy.
In many ways ‘Never Let Me Go’ is the film ‘Atonement’ wasn’t. It’s a much better piece of narrative fiction by far, and the payoff is heavy, heavy, heavy.
The Film Beautiful
I just want to quickly say how beautiful both films look. There are some stunning moments of cinematography in both films.
Too Bad She Won’t Live, But Then Again, Who Does?
So now, it’s time to have a look at the ‘Blade Runner’ references. Jordan Scott, the director of ‘Cracks’ is the daughter of Ridley Scott, director of ‘Blade Runner’. In ‘Cracks’, she pays homage to her old man’s work in a key scene when Di witnesses Eva Green’s Miss G rape Fiamma. Set-up -wise, it’s a re-run of the scene when J.F Sebastian witnesses Roy kill Dr. Eldon Tyrell, down to the reaction as she turns and flees the scene.
In ‘Never Let Me Go’, we come to realise our main character and her cohorts in the school are not natural humans but some kind of genetically engineered organ donating surrogates; they are replicants, for want of a better word. The despair they feel for their destiny is in fact the despair of Roy Batty. They want more life, but they cannot get it. At the end, the main character asks if their short lives are any different to the lives of normal humans. It’s very bleak, but you applaud the director who gets you there emotionally, without the cinematic pyrotechnics of a ‘Blade Runner’. Then again, it’s been 30years since that film.
The message is unsurprising because it has been 30 years since ‘Blade Runner’, and yet it gets delivered with the same gravitas. It’s very well played.