Never Let Me Go (United Kingdom/United States, 2010)September 21, 2010
It is an accepted truth that adapting a sublime novel does not always result in a sublime movie. To an extent, this is the problem with Never Let Me Go, Alex Garland's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguru's book. The film's tone, which attempts to capture the thoughtful style of the written version, is almost too solemn and reverent. The pace is slow-moving almost to a fault, treading along the line where meditative crosses over into somnambulant. When it comes to observing its central three characters, Never Let Me Go rarely stumbles but in filling in the blanks around them and developing the world and society of which they are victims, the movie (even more than the book) leaves us hanging. The story is in a way a victim of its own inventiveness in that it provides a fascinating backstory that is addressed only in throw-away lines and insignificant subplots. Ultimately, the characters are less interesting than their circumstances, but those circumstances are of secondary importance.
Technically, Never Let Me Go is science fiction, taking place in an alternate reality. Much like Children of Men, however, the movie is interested only in its sci-fi aspects as a way to investigate dramatic potential. The premise argues that, during the 1950s, science evolved a way to extend the human life span beyond 100 years. The impetus behind this was the creation of clones whose sole purpose is to donate organs. They grow up in orphanage-like farms, are indoctrinated with an understanding of their purpose and, shortly after reaching adulthood, are "harvested" for the good of mankind. There are two classes of clones: "donors" and "carers" - the latter help the former through the harvesting process until it is their time to join the donor ranks. Death is never spoken of. When a clone reaches the end of his usefulness, typically after three or four donations, he is referred to as having "completed." Death is a term reserved only for human beings.
Never Let Me Go focuses on three characters. We meet them as young children at the exclusive Hailsham Academy, where they live and study. Ruth (Ella Purnell) is the alpha child, with Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) following in her wake. Both are interested in Tommy (Charlie Rowe), but he is too weak to resist Ruth's advances, even though he prefers Kathy. Roughly ten years, later, they have left Hailsham for The Cottages, where they will begin to experience life outside the rarified atmosphere of the place in which they grew up. Ruth (now played by Kiera Knightley) is still with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), while Kathy (Carey Mulligan) continues to function as a third wheel. By now, it's clear to all three that, if true love exists, it does so between Kathy and Tommy, not Tommy and Ruth, but Ruth is too frightened of being alone and unloved to let go of Tommy, and Tommy is too timid to break with Ruth and pursue Kathy. Essentially, like Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, this is about longing and unfulfilled (although not necessarily unrequited) love.
The film resists the obvious allegorical possibilities. The clones' plight is not a stand-in for slavery, for example. In fact, Never Let Me Go is largely uninterested in questions about the clones' standing in society or their inherent humanity. The latter is treated as a given (in the beginning, we don't know they are "different" from other human beings - that revelation occurs gradually during the course of the narrative) and, when it is raised during a pivotal scene, it comes as a surprise to the characters that there would be a question about their having souls. Perhaps questions about what qualifies a creature as "life" are so commonplace within science fiction that further exploration of them were deemed unnecessary within this framework.
Mark Romanek, a highly respected music video director making his follow-up to One Hour Photo, has crafted a motion picture that is as visually impressive as it is emotionally distant. The look of the film, even in its near-contemporary scenes, feels trapped in the '50s and '60s, as if the medical breakthrough that extends lives somehow slowed all other aspects of living. There are also some lovely individual shots, a few of which evoke a melancholy sense of yearning. (Not surprising since the movie is presented from Kathy's perspective.)
The performances are of the highest caliber. Kiera Knightley's portrayal is more brittle that what we have become accustomed to from her, but she softens toward the end. Knightley does a great deal with a poorly developed character. Andrew Garfield, who played the lead in the first chapter of the Red Riding trilogy, shows aspects of strength and insecurity, and his reaction to a key revelation is striking. At the heart and soul of Never Let Me Go is Carey Mulligan and, although her work here isn't as transcendent as what she provided in An Education, this is nevertheless an example of multi-faceted acting. It is also worth noting that care was taken in choosing the actors to play the younger versions of the characters, since all three bear resemblances to their older counterparts.
Never Let Me Go is a moody film, but the slowness at which it progresses and the way in which the emotions are dampened to create an introspective feeling can lull the viewer almost to sleep. Never Let Me Go requires patience, but one has to wonder whether it has earned the right to make such a demand on its audience. The film is neither thematically deep nor emotionally powerful. Yes, we experience regret at times, but it's a fleeting feeling, lacking the potency to linger. The production is gorgeously rendered and splendidly acted but there's a sense that the whole may be significantly less than the sum of its parts.
Never Let Me Go (United Kingdom/United States, 2010)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightley, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Music: Rachel Portman
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight