(by Dustin Putman
Quiet and mournful, "Never Let Me Go" criss-crosses between genres that include, but are not limited to, romance, science-fiction, and coming-of-age drama. It is set in the past, spanning 1978 to 1994, but revises and re-imagines history in a similar fashion as Quentin Tarantino's 2009 masterwork "Inglourious Basterds." Because the human emotions within are so strong and so familiar, however, the film rarely seems like a leap outside of reality. Within the confines of its beginning and its ending is the sure-handed power to make the viewer not only buy into the heightened conflicts of its trio of protagonists, but to believe them. Alas, this special quality ultimately does not extend to certain unanswered questions—some audiences might call them holes—in the story, nor does it speak of a certain overriding restraint that snatches away some of the picture's narrative urgency. Article continues below
The impressionable students of English boarding school Hailsham are groomed to be obedient, conscientious about taking care of their bodies, and wary of stepping foot beyond the property. They have been told in abstract terms what their purpose is, but regretful new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins)—who will not be working there much longer—bluntly lays it out for them: born as clones, they will be faced with a series of organ donations soon after reaching adulthood that will eventually take their lives. Once they've grown up and moved on to an isolated living quarters called "The Cottages," tight-knit classmates Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) indirectly hear that Hailsham, as with other such schools, has been converted into battery factories. For these bonded friends, their destinies have already been set, and not even proof that they have souls is going to change that.
Based on the renowned contemporary novel by Kazuo Ishiguru, "Never Let Me Go" has been faithfully adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (2007's "Sunshine") and directed by Mark Romanek (2002's "One Hour Photo"). As with the book, the film is matter-of-fact but decidedly insular, taking its sweet, measured time as it aims to view its fictional world through the eyes of the reserved, thoughtful Kathy. We only ever see what she sees, and what she sees is limited in many ways by an upbringing that has kept her out of the public eye for her first eighteen years. Even afterwards, she doesn't travel far, aware that her duty as a carer—and eventually a donor—is her first and foremost responsibility. Indoctrinated from birth to accept a fate that ends with what Hailsham's teachers describe as "completion" (read: death), Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are victims of not only circumstance, but of their very creation. When Hailsham's headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) cruelly tells them she is unsure if they even have souls, the viewer wishes they would scream back at her in defiance, or at least stand up for themselves. They may not have been born in the conventional way, but they have hopes, fears, desires, and the ability to love just like anyone. If they aren't God's creatures, so to speak, then maybe there's no such thing as a soul to begin with.
Director Mark Romanek plays things with an authenticity that overrides its sci-fi element. He isn't out to visually dazzle viewers—even if the film is very well shot by cinematographer Adam Kimmel (2005's "Capote"), making haunting use of the English countryside and shore—but to explore the struggle of the human condition to do something with one's life before it's over. Sure, Kathy's, Tommy's and Ruth's lives are abbreviated, but even those who live to an old age grapple with the same quandary: there never seems to be enough time. The characters are developed with understanding and empathy, and the bond between the main three, alternately tempestuous, loving and soulful, is never in doubt. Where Romanek does, perhaps, misstep is in his decision to pace the film with the leisureliness of an octogenarian with a bad hip. Never boring but notably deliberate and meditative, the film is one that lacks momentum but demands just that. After all, the story involves young adults barreling toward death at an expeditious rate. There should be a desperation and pressing criticality in their hearts, a sense that they wish to break free from their preordained futures, but there isn't. Maybe that's the biggest tragedy of all—that because of their upbringing and what has been fastened into their heads, they don't even consider that they have another option.
Following up her Oscar-winning turn in 2009's "An Education," Carey Mulligan does not disappoint as Kathy, unassumingly commanding attention even with a character who says more in her mind than she does out loud. There is never any question what she's thinking, and this knowledge, mixed with the vulnerability Mulligan exudes, leads toward a number of deeply poignant moments near the end. As Ruth, who regrets stealing Tommy away from probable soul mate Kathy as pre-teens based on nothing more than pure jealousy, Keira Knightley (2007's "Atonement") is superb. Knightley avoids turning Ruth into a wretch or a villain, bringing added layers of grief and remorse to a young woman who knows she's made mistakes and hopes it's not too late to fix things with Kathy as she faces her perilous third donation. Andrew Garfield (2007's "Lions for Lambs") is an adequate Tommy, but no match for his two co-stars; too often, Garfield looks to be trying too hard to play his shy, sensitive role, and has a big breakdown scene near the climax that loses its impact by way of his overacting. Meanwhile, several supporting performances are exquisitely realized, from Sally Hawkins (2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky"), unforgettably compassionate as the against-the-grain Miss Lucy, to newcomers Isobel Meikle-Small and Ella Purnell as the younger Kathy and Ruth, confident and beyond natural—not to mention dead ringers for their adult counterparts.
"Never Let Me Go" isn't all that original in plot, sharing a great deal with George Clayton Johnson's "Logan's Run" and 2005's "The Island," but its treatment as a frighteningly skewed existential tale set in the real world makes it rather novel. Director Mark Romanek knows what he's doing despite a nagging suspicion that the project might have improved had it not adhered so closely to the source material, its internality working better in literary form than on screen. Watching the film, one can't help but question the characters' actions, or lack thereof—for example, why don't they flee from their fates, or try to at least challenge the system?—but these wonderments are our own, not Kathy's. Still, as the subdued, bleakly unsettling final moments play out, it's difficult not to yearn for a greater cathartic farewell to the story at hand. It should be absolutely devastating. Instead, it only manages politely truthful.