© 2010 Ray Wong
Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's (The Remains of the Day) critically acclaimed novel, Never Let Me Go is an interesting contemplation on humanity set in a parallel universe.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are three children who have spent their entire childhood at an idyllic boarding school called Hailsham. They are well-mannered, mild children who have been fed stories about the outside world and who never questioned about their parents or backgrounds. They're led to believe they are very special, and they should be happy with what they've been given, and they must try their best to fit in and remain healthy.
Children at Hailsham are often cliquish and capricious, and these three children develop a close friendship. In fact, Kathy likes Tommy very much, but is resigned to realize the creative Tommy and extroverted Ruth are together. Eventually, they learn the truth about who they are, why they are special, and what fate awaits them.
As adult, Tommy and Ruth become romantically involved. They also find out they can "defer" as donors if a couple can prove that they're in love. The tension among Tommy, Ruth and Kathy eventually drives Kathy away, and she applies to become a "carer." Years later, their paths cross again, and Kathy must face her feelings for Tommy and Ruth and the reality of their future.
Carey Mulligan (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) is quickly becoming Hollywood's new "IT" girl. As Kathy, Mulligan is withdrawn, quiet and observant, in the mode of a true narrator. Mulligan takes advantage of her looks and ability to portray innocence, and she makes us care. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) plays the isolated, shy Tommy with a quiet resilience and an edge of angry outbursts. He's a new star to watch. "Veteran" Keira Knightley (The Duchess) plays the last member of the trio with an interesting mix of connivance and vulnerability. By far, her character is the least sympathetic but most interesting of the three main characters.
Their younger selves are played by Izzy Meikle-Small (Disco), who is adorable and sweet as Kathy; Charlie Rowe (Disco), who is just shy and withdrawn as Tommy; and Ella Purnell (Ways to Live Forever), who is assertive and domineering as Ruth. Charlotte Rambling (The Duchess) has great presence as the intimidating Hailsham headmaster, Miss Emily. Sally Hawkins (Happily Ever After) is wonderful as sympathetic Miss Lucy.
Adapted by Alex Garland (Sunshine), the screenplay has the thankless job of translating a literary work that is highly atmospheric and internal to film. Unfortunately, the script skimps through intricate character development to make us understand why the characters are that way. There's simply not enough plot to sustain the story without deeper character revelation. We're led to believe that the children are raised that way, and they're resigned to their fate. The problem is, these are by and large very passive characters. They don't really do much to change the world around them, to avert their fate. They don't really change either. It makes it very difficult for me to connect with the characters. While logically I understand why they are the way they are, given the world they live in, but emotionally I can't relate.
And since the story is told from the point of view of Kathy, who is a passive character, there isn't much for us to understand that world either. While that may have worked in the novel, in the cinematic context, it fails because this "parallel universe" is at once familiar (it's set in England from 1973 to 1994) but alien. I don't understand how people who live in that world can not see these characters, especially as children, as human. How Hailsham, as an "experiment" to understand these donors, could have failed. Again, I can't connect with that cold reality, and there's nothing else to make us understand. We're not shown anything, such as wars or an apocalypse, to make us believe people in that world could be that cold-hearted and dispassionate.
Mark Romanek's (One Hour Photo) direction is excellent, and he gets the atmosphere right. The cinematography is beautiful in a somewhat creepy and depressing way. The lighting is exceptional. The production is top-notch. The performances are strong all around.
Unfortunately, this moody piece lacks a strong conviction and reasons for us to believe. The characters are too passive; they're almost depressing. The ending is bleak. To be fair, it does make me think about humanity: what makes us human, after all? What is the soul? These are great themes, but as a story, the film lacks a strong plot and active characters who don't just sit around accepting their fate. It's a great disappointment, since I'm a fan of Ishiguro's work. I'll let this one go.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Director: Mark Romanek
Writers: Alex Garland (based on novel by Kazuo Ishiguro)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 103 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.6 out of 10