Never Let Me Go Review


Not having read Kazuo Ishiguro’s beloved novel Never Let Me Go, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Mark Romanek’s polarizing film adaptation. Fans of the novel seemed taken with the film’s deeply tragic themes. Others reported being unfazed, even bored, by the proceedings. I guess I fell somewhere in the middle. I thought the presentation was flawed, and a bit too slow-going for my taste. That being said, it ultimately got to me through some good performances and nuanced direction. It doesn’t really go over the top, but it still spoke to me. Not an easy thing to do, for sure, but Never Let Me Go pulls it off.

The film is somewhat strange in that it’s has some futuristic themes but actually takes place in the past—beginning in the late 1960s to be exact. At the Hailsham School in England, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and the rest of the students are told they are special. The reason is a mystery to them until a new guardian (Sally Hawkins) arrives, pities them, and tells them they have be created with the sole purpose of donating their vital organs to other members of the population. It’s clear this is a very controversial style of medicine, but the results speak for themselves: Life expectancy is up, and it’s debatable whether these individuals are even human.

Despite the questionable nature of their souls, these “creatures” are still capable of human emotions—including love. Kathy has loved Tommy for as long as she can remember, yet he’s the least popular boy at Hailsham. He has a temper that doesn’t begin to subside until Kathy shows an interest in him. But once the other students some around to him, Ruth has set her sights on him, and soon the two are inseparable, and Kathy is heartbroken. Upon leaving school, the three of them stay together, and Kathy decides to channel her loneliness into a career as a carer—an individual who looks after those who are going through the donation process. By chance, she meets her old friends again, many years later. And having gone through quite an ordeal since school, they’ve gained enough perspective to confront their demons during their last few months of life.

What’s interesting about the film is that the fate of these characters is never in question. What we don’t know, however, is if they’ll die happy or sad, together or alone. It gives the film a tangibly melancholy tone that many viewers will find difficult to embrace. But it’s consistent with what it’s trying to say. It doesn’t throw these characters a bone and doesn’t resort to cheap tricks to elicit emotion out of us.

A lot of the emotion comes down to the performances, which are spot-on across the board. Carey Mulligan is quickly becoming one of her generation’s finest actresses. She just floored me in An Education, and she was easily the best thing about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Her work here is a little quieter, but she pulls of a tough job—making her non-human character seem quite humane. Kathy doesn’t know what she is, and Mulligan sells us on that uncertainty with quiet moments of despair and a softness that almost forces you to pity her. In another year and with a better release strategy, I think an Oscar nomination would have been in the cards. It’s certainly a performance worthy of such praise.

Her two other big co-stars aren’t quite as good, but they do respectable work. Keira Knightley’s character, I thought, was a little underdeveloped. We never get a sense of what motivated Ruth to do what she did or what made her feel insecure. Knightley, however, does good work with what she’s given. Garfield, on the other hand, has a character he should have been able to sink his teeth into. Tommy ends up feeling a little too aloof. And there’s a naturalism that he showed in The Social Network that feels missing here. It’s like he is trying too hard to portray the personality traits he saw in the character, and instead of really pulling it off, he comes across as transparent. Still, it’s not as if the performance detracts too much from the film overall.

The problems I had with the film related more to the way the story unfolds. It’s told in three parts. The first is during Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy’s time at school. We’re slowly introduced to their plight, though I sort of wished the film touched a bit more on how the world got to this point and the ethical issues at play. The second part is the weakest portion and the one most likely to test your patience. Our three main characters leave school and are taken to stay in some country cottages where they’ll enjoy the last few years of their healthy lives. As the film transitions (quite abruptly, I should point out) into its final third, it picks up some emotional steam. It concludes on all the right notes, which is half the battle for most movies, but in this case, there are some ups and downs that make me understand the somewhat chilly reception to the film.

I was surprised that the film didn’t do better when it was released, though I’m not too surprised now. Though the novel it’s based on is very respected, it’s not a very commercial story and contains few, if any, truly uplifting moments. I appreciated that about it, however. It’s not in the business of pleasing, thrilling, or entertaining you. It wants to move you, and for me, it succeeds.

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