Saturday, October 2, 2010

Movie Review: "Never Let Me Go"

"Never Let Me Go" is the kind of movie I have been so hungry for, that I risk exaggerating its merits beyond what this delicate work will bear.  It is a faithful adaptation a popular literary novel, well-acted (practically inhabited) by a talented cast, directed with sensitivity, and photographed glowingly. 

It's a quiet film.  We are drawn closely to a group of young characters who adjust to, or are destroyed by, an unusual world; characters who learn disturbing truths about themselves; and whose stories hold universal truths. It's an emotional experience, but not manipulative.  It will leave viewers sad, thoughtful, protective of these characters.  It's a substantial film, laudably sincere and serious, one that viewers can take with them, to think about and feel, to connect to their lives in some way.

"Never Let Me Go" is science fiction. But it has none of the surface trappings of the genre: no metallic machines or robots, space-age noise or brassy orchestral score.  With its gentle tone, and an overall wistfulness of doomed romance and inevitable fate, this film resembles the 1968 Cliff Robertson Oscar-winner "Charly".

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield are convincing as three students of a special boarding school, in which apparently they have been raised their entire lives.  Everyone is terrified of the world outside the confines of the school, and until they are grown, they know nothing of the wider world.   When a sympathetic, rebellious teacher reveals to the students their special purpose in life, each of the three characters must deal with its implications, and therein lies the special beauty, and contemplation of life's meaning, the movie affords.

The novel by Kazuo Ishiguro ("Remains of the Day") never explicitly lays out the "secret" inherent in the story, but lets the myriad details mount into a feeling of horror and resignation.  The film departs from this by revealing the central conflict early, so we understand the horrible implications behind casually-used words like "carer", "donation", and "completion".   It is to everyone's credit that the actors and director Mark Romanek convince us of the feasibility of the situation.  Rather than creating a typical suspense story with a shocking revelation, Romanek and his screenwriter, Alex Garland, build suspense by closely observing the behavior of these characters and how they overcome their fate.   Some may find the details far-fetched. Most science fiction requires additional suspension of disbelief. This is no exception.

The indelible image of the film is the face of Carey Mulligan; she holds the screen with such maturity, and communicates so expressively, that she becomes eloquent, with little reliance on dialog.  This is a great, understated performance that may be overlooked in favor of more flamboyant acting at Oscar time.

Andrew Garfield is endearing and wonderful as an emotional, sensitive young man experiencing creative and sexual awakening, who clings to the belief that his artistic expression is proof of one's humanity, one's soul.  His howl of existential anguish late in the film will stun viewers and shake them.  It is pleasing to encounter a mainstream contemporary film that addresses issues like creativity and meaning.  I hope it finds an audience willing to contemplate them.

Keira Knightley's character is difficult to like; she is a catalyst for the emotional momentum of the story, and is responsible for the intrigues and jealousies that the other characters must reconcile.  Knightley is perhaps too established to play this surprisingly small role, but she has skill, and she manages to portray a deteriorating character without undue pathos.

Special mention should be made of the terrific child actors who portray the trio as youngsters: Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell.  Their portrayals are seamless and remarkable.

It is hard to write about this movie while skirting the central conflict.  I hope those who have not seen it will be intrigued, and inspired to give it a try.  Prepare to be haunted by an unusual story,  and get ready to love three unforgettable characters who desperately yearn to find meaning in an absurd world.


  1. Very eloquent review. I'm still of two minds about seeing this, but if you're comments are anything to go by I really shouldn't miss it.

    Do you think it's very small release pattern (still only 26 theatres) will hurt it's chances for critical recognition at the end of the year?

  2. I think if it goes into wide release in the next couple of weeks, it will maintain visibility and have a shot at some nominations. But this is the kind of reflective, cerebral film that rarely triumphs over rabble-rousers and crowd pleasers... I hope you do go, Ben; I would be eager to get your reaction.