Film Review: Never Let Me Go

Haunting, heartbreaking adaptation of the Ishiguro novel features a superb cast and inspired direction and cinematography...and a unique comingling of genres.

The book is always better than the film, goes conventional wisdom, but occasionally the opposite holds. A decade ago, Philip and Belinda Haas took Up at the Villa, a minor work by W. Somerset Maugham about self-indulgent ex-pats during the war, added their own plot twists and characters, and transformed it into a melodrama with more intrigue and moral dimension than the British author’s 1941 novella. The film benefited from good acting and luscious Tuscan locations, proving the old adage that a moving picture is worth eighty-thousand words.

The same thing might be said about Never Let Me Go, an intelligent and deeply felt adaptation of a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland trimmed the story to its essentials, concentrating the book’s powerful ethical dilemma. The cast, cinematography and sets perfectly suit the material and lend the movie a lyricism, and an immediacy, Ishiguro’s sometimes mannered prose lacks. The filmmakers don’t overplay the strangeness of the novel’s central conceit; neither do they neglect its genuine creepiness.

Never Let Me Go is alternative history, a kind of “what if” approach to the recent past predicated on the notion that a scientific breakthrough in the 1950s revolutionized medicine and extended the human life span by decades. The culture and technology of the last half of the 20th century appear unchanged but for this single extraordinary development, although the world has had to come to terms with “first things”—what it means to be human, how to define the soul, when to concede that sacrifice has become suffering.

Just as readily, Never Let Me Go could be described as a tearjerker, a bittersweet romance (much like Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day) about wasted opportunities. Except that the three people whose lives we follow for 30 years, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, have no real choice in matters of love or anything else, their fate determined by a society that has decided “first things” in favor of its own solipsistic needs.

We meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (played in the first third of the movie by Izzy Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe) as students at Hailsham, a respectably shabby English boarding school overseen by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), a proper English headmistress. Their routine—classes, games, pranks—seems familiar, and yet not. We learn, along with new guardian Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), that the children are being educated toward a singular purpose, and that one administrator, known as Madame (Nathalie Richard), has been conducting an ongoing project intended to profile the students’ characters and psychologies as though they were subjects in an experiment. Never Let Me Go doesn’t depend on surprise or revelation, but Romanek has constructed his narrative so that audiences come to understand along with the children themselves why they are special, as Miss Emily points out at every opportunity. The more we understand their situation, the more we are chilled by the deceptive normalcy of Hailsham.

The movie is divided into three chapters, jumping forward in time to the 1980s, when Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (now played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) are teenagers living in post-graduate housing called the Cottages—a dilapidated farm, really—and again to the 1990s, when they play out their proscribed roles in dreary concrete care centers that will be their homes until, as they put it, completion. Tommy and Ruth become lovers, although Kathy has a deeper connection with both than either with each other. None of this quite matters: Hailsham hasn’t prepared them for deep affection or genuine emotion…that would be too human a condition.

Somewhat surprising given their past work, Romanek (One Hour Photo) and Garland (28 Days Later) show real affinity for the subtle shades of resignation and quiet desperation that characterize Isighuro’s prose and, as would be expected, accentuate the unsettling eeriness that pervades Never Let Me Go. Adam Kimmel films the action in sympathetic muted tones, his elegiac camerawork epitomized by the series of still lifes—a striped ball left behind in a field, a fading doll forgotten on a shelf, a rotting boat abandoned on a beach—that quietly comment on the larger events unfolding over the decades.

Mulligan, an actress with the most emotive eyes in the business, and Garfield, blessed with the neurotic appeal of a young Tony Perkins, deliver moving performances (as do the younger actors who play the characters at Hailsham), although Mulligan is least convincing as a shag-cut 17-year-old…ditto for Knightley, who makes up for that miscasting during the last third of the movie, when she must age beyond her years.

Romanek rightly recognized that all three roles required restraint, that Never Let Me Go would be most affecting when understated, which is why the moral question at the heart of the story is unspoken…but loudly heard.