Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go is an agonising account of our world, had society chosen a particular ethical path, if human engineering technologies had become available in the 1960’s. James Stirlings student accommodation hall at the University of St Andrews in Fife, plays a tiny role in the film but it is a crucial one, not only in providing specific historical context but also commentary about human diminishment.
Haunting is a word overused by film reviewers but so applicable here that I am forced to use it. Technically science fiction, the story is presented as a historical account so it is impossible to distance yourself by hiding behind a remote fictional plot. Instead it feels distressingly real. Institutionalised since birth, the characters (who were cloned to provide society with a supply of transplant organs) do not rage against the system, at least, not in the way you expect them to. This resignation is particularly disturbing. Assisted with the conversion of the novel to screenplay by Alex Garland (whose work carries recurring themes of society gone wrong and studies of human behavior in isolated groups) Ishiguro ensured the film didn't stray too far from his original vision, so those who enjoyed the book will not be disappointed.
Built in the late 60's, the building is a clear member of the Brutalist approach - prefabricated concrete and expressed repetitive forms with blocks of mass, giving the building an imposing presence. With so many examples of failed attempts at low cost housing in this style (where deteriorating materials, security issues and blank canvasses for graffiti artists have inhibited the growth of positive communities), it is no wonder that the association with urban decay has made brutalist buildings an easy target for film makers. Exaggerated perspectives and vacant spaces in these buildings can make for menacing, life denying backdrops.
Never Let Me Go's treatment of Andrew Melville Hall is no excepton. It is cast as the hospital where donors recover following organ harvesting. Without site context and the careful omission of any of the communal areas, the building looks bleak and miserable. Tightly cropped views of the repetitive window elements evokes a battery typology which speaks of mass production and the generic, faceless human stock housed in the facility.
We do not get to see the way the building sits so comfortably in the site that it looks to have grown from the local geography and we do not get to experience the impressive vistas of the surrounding landscape framed by the buildings' strategically placed openings. It is a shame because the building is a rare example of the successful application of this philosphy. The expressed patterning of windows and forms were not intended to disempower but to unify, expressing the many equal individuals that make the whole. While this ideology may not have worked well for social housing, it is quite appropriate for student accommodation.