Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the well respected book Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro is, at one time, both achingly beautiful and as muted as the colors it’s filmed in. The coming-of-age story, surrounding three British teens takes place in a dystopian society where the farming of organs is an accepted practice. Children spend their whole lives growing carefully into healthy young adults where they are expected to make ‘donations’ until their ‘completion.’ While the source of these children is never explicitly explained or discussed in the film, it seems they’re cloned.
Clones of lesser members of society. None of the children want to admit it, but it seems their ‘originals’ are more likely to be drug addicts or sex industry workers, than normal folks. The lack of definitive explanations for things such as these, and the nondescript terms tossed casually about, works in the film’s favor, leaving a sense of mystery and understanding that there are other, unseen forces at play here.
These special children live at boarding schools across the country. The three main characters in Never Let Me Go live at school named Hailsham. Their lives there are mostly normal. The girls and boys fraternize and strike up innocent romantic relationships. There are popular students, and unpopular students. They play sports, and earn what is basically spending money. They’re watched over by adult women, all referred to as ‘guardians.’ Both Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling play in these curiously monotoned roles. At the end of their education, the children of Hailsham are released into the real world, into group homes, all filled with those waiting to make their donations.
The film is narrated by Kathy, played by Carey Mulligan. She spends quite a bit of time on her life as a student at her school. But the most interesting part of the film happens just after their graduation, at their first group home. Kathy has held amorous feelings for Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but is left out as her best friend, Ruth (Kiera Knightley) has gotten to him first. The world these three have been released into is not a kind one. And even with very few influences, among them a TV, and a couple more worldly roommates, it doesn’t take long for the Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy to learn how to hurt each other.
Romanek, once a music video director, worked closely with production designer Mark Digby, and cinematographer Adam Kimmel to paint an extremely beautiful world mostly filled with gray, but occasionally lending itself to dull blues and greens. Pay special attention to the lighting, which is never anything less than gorgeous. The muted pallet, the well framed shots full of monochromatic settings, and a storyline that can’t even pretend to hope for a happy ending pave the way to emotional vulnerability for the viewer. But Romanek made some unfortunate directorial choices that softened any sort of emotional punch that could have been delivered. The purposely unhurried tone and pacing, which should have encourage introspection and meditation on mortality and love, actually promotes a sluggish, and emotionless reaction to all the goings-on on screen.
As far as performances are concerned, Romanek was blessed with his cast. Mr. Garfield, who is quickly becoming one of the most exciting young actors working today, has done better in films like Boy A, but he succeeds in portraying a character full of childlike enthusiasm and naiveté for life and love, despite the reality he’s surrounded by. Ms. Knightley is adequate as well, but has trouble matching the strong presentation of Mulligan as Kathy, despite the amount of redundant narration she is called to do. Sally Hawkins short screen time is particularly poignant and touching, and proves that a gentle and understated performance is capable of being much more affective than the overtly dramatic.
In the end, the film fails to reach its lofty ambitions. And it’s painful to think of how good Never Let Me Go could have been at the hands of a better director.
Never Let Me Go received a limited release in North America on September 15, 2010