Never Let Me Go has been getting rave reviews on the festival circuit; interested to see what all the fuss was about, I jumped at the chance to see an early screening of the movie before its nationwide release on October 8th. While the film showcased some excellent performances from up-and-coming actors, and was a wonderfully well-shot piece of work, I don’t think it’s something I’ll watch again.
The film is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly acclaimed novel of the same name, which I haven’t read. (I’ll judge this movie based solely on what I saw on screen, but if you’ve seen the movie and read the book, feel free to sound off in the comments and let us know about the differences.) Romanek has only directed one feature before this one – the 2002 Robin Williams movie One Hour Photo – but I almost guarantee you’ve seen his work: he directed Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” music video, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” video, and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” video, among many others.
The movie basically chronicles a love triangle between three children from an idyllic English boarding school to a college-age work placement community to eventual adulthood. Kathy (Mulligan) is clearly a great match for Tommy (Garfield), but her jealous best friend Ruth (Knightley) steps in and steals him away – leaving Kathy as the third wheel in their trio and forcing her to endure the pain of watching the love of her life spend it with someone else.
(Spoilers in the next paragraph only.)
Never Let Me Go is definitely Oscar bait, a deliberate and slow-moving film that deals with issues of humanity, life, and love that will undoubtedly secure awards nominations in the coming months. The screenplay, by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), is essentially an “indie” version of Michael Bay’s 2005 film The Island. Both films feature characters created with the sole purpose of being harvested for their internal organs, and thematically explores some of the same territory. A huge difference between the films, however – style, acting, and basically all elements except plot aside – is how the characters in each film react to the truth when it is finally revealed. In The Island, the characters quickly decide to make a break for it, tearing through the facade of their existence on a quest to find their sponsors and send the system into upheaval. In Romanek’s film, the characters blindly accept their fate and don’t try to escape from the system at all; instead, they seem content with merely delaying the inevitable.
If there are aspects deserving of praise in this movie, they are the acting of the three leads and their younger counterparts. Carey Mulligan delivers a quietly compelling performance as Kathy H., the protagonist and vehicle which the audience rides through the film. Future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield does some fine work here as well, crafting one of the most tragic characters and – even though he has a “freak-out moment” that seemed particularly desperate for Oscar attention – pushed through that one eye-rolling sequence to a satisfying conclusion. Even Keira Knightley – an actress I’m not particularly fond of – was effective, coming off as especially menacing in “The Cottages” flashback scenes. But I was honestly more impressed with the work of the younger actors who played those characters, most notably the feature film debut of Isobel Meikle-Small, who bears an incredible resemblance to Mulligan and perfectly captured the innocence (and heartbreak) of young love.
I think I would have enjoyed the film more if the story had been more compelling, even on a basic gut level. There just isn’t much going on in the narrative – and when another reveal comes late in the third act, the audience has already figured out what’s going on and we’re waiting for the characters to play catch-up. Sure, the concept of the love triangle between the three leads is interesting to a degree, but at the same time, we’ve seen that story played out countless times and nothing markedly original is presented in those specific scenes.
Romanek’s direction should be praised for cultivating solid portrayals from his entire cast. The world of Never Let Me Go is a futuristic alternate dystopia, but without many drastic alterations or heavy sci-fi elements (hence the Academy’s nearly guaranteed approval). I wish Romanek would have gone into a bit more detail exploring the differences between our world and the one depicted on screen, but again – the more this looks like an English boarding-school drama, the better chances it has to win awards. (Yes, that’s incredibly cynical, but sadly true.) Some praise him for the atmosphere here, but I’ll attribute most of that to Rachel Portman’s string-heavy musical score (which, like the camera work in this film, was gorgeous).
There are some comedic moments (which I won’t spoil), and some suspenseful ones as well, but overall, the tone of the film is akin to a leisurely walk through a park: non-threatening, occasionally brisk, but mostly just nice to look at. Never Let Me Go is a movie I’m glad I’ve seen but not one I plan on returning to in the future; the bleak and dreary England portrayed here combined with the depressing story aspects don’t make it easy material to love, but rather to appreciate. Until next time…