Never Let Me Go (Romanek, 2010)
There comes a time in all our lives when we have to face our mortality. We have to first comprehend it, and then deal with it our own way. There is no escaping it. The characters in author Kazuo Ishiguro’s heightened world are compliant. Their purpose in life might not allow the freedom that we are allotted but their eventual fate is our fate and they simply accept it as we do. If these characters attempted to do escape their fate, it destroys the purpose of the story. They no longer mirror us.
The film is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a book I would rank in my top 5 of all time. While I will not be discussing the film as an adaptation, I will say that the film captures the reflective spirit of the novel and stays quite close to the source material.
Using title cards and Cathy’s (Carey Mulligan) sparse voiceover narration, Alex Garland’s script divides the story into three succinct and even parts. The first shows Cathy (Isabel Miekle-Small as young Cathy , Tommy (Andrew Garfield and Charlie Rowe as young Tommy) and Ruth (Keira Knightley and Ella Purnell as young Ruth) as children and their life at Halisham, the school that they live in. It establishes their upbringing which is equally off-putting in how closely it resembles our world and in the ways it differs. Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) bluntly shows compassion one day by telling a classroom of students of their fates. Afterwards, she stands by the window in silence as do the children. The wind blows a few papers off Miss Lucy’s desk. Tommy picks them up, places them on her desk and goes back to his seat. The next day, Miss Lucy has been dismissed and is not seen again.
The first section also establishes the dynamic between Cathy, Tommy and Ruth. Cathy and Ruth are good friends while Tommy is a loner who is made fun of for his outbursts of rage. Cathy befriends Tommy and they establish a special friendship. The assembly where Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) gives a speech about Miss Lucy’s dismissal is when Cathy sees Ruth and Tommy holding hands, a development which just happens to occur a day after learning of their fates. This correlation is indicative of the way they will later indirectly deal with “completion”, through reflecting and facing the problems within their dynamic. Most films that feature main characters being portrayed by children in early scenes, take you out of the film to a degree. We are well aware these children are not their adult counterparts. Never Let Me Go does a remarkable job, rarely to be matched, in their casting of young Cathy, Ruth and Tommy. In particular, Isabel Miekle-Small is just as engaging to watch as Mulligan in the subsequent segments; no small feat.
The second section takes place at The Cottages where Cathy, Tommy and Ruth go to when they are eighteen. This is the weaker section of the three. There is a lot of worthy material here but Garland’s script fails to fully utilize the time to establish Tommy and Ruth as individuals or to explore the characters quite as much as it should have. Also, a couple of scenes are tonally off. One of them is a scene when Ruth visits Cathy’s bedroom at night, which ends up feeling oddly and wrongly like a horror film. The segment‘s strengths are several standout scenes as opposed to its overall portrait of life at The Cottages.
The third segment takes place years later with Cathy as a “carer” and Tommy and Ruth after their 2nd donations. They have not seen each other for ten years. This is the best segment of the three, fully utilizing themes of lost time, regret and desperation. Romanek’s strongest imagery comes from this section. The scene showing Ruth’s third donation is haunting and unforgettable. All of the repressed emotional build-up reaches a boiling point (albeit, still a repressed boiling point). The completion equals the non-dystopian definition of death metaphor comes to a head here as well. The fate that had been lingering has arrived and seeing Cathy, Tommy and Ruth deal with it reveals our own sense of hopelessness and inescapability.
Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley all excel, each performing remarkably. All three major performers superbly display repressed desperation. Mulligan is even better here than she was in An Education. This truly is some of the best acting you will see at the movies this year. The success of the film hinges on whether Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley can reveal the subtext contained within the script. Cathy, Ruth and Tommy indirectly deal with their destiny by concentrating on their feelings for one another. Ruth and Tommy are together but Cathy’s feelings for Tommy go back to when they were children. Tommy also seems to be harboring feelings for Cathy but is too stabilized with Ruth to act on it. They know they do not have a lot of time before they head towards completion. Why don’t they act on their feelings? Well, the same goes for us; why don’t we?
Mark Romanek’s direction does not pack the visionary punch that One Hour Photo did. There, Romanek demonstrated a uniquely affecting balancing act between being overt and subtle. Here, his success shows itself in the great care he has for the material and the characters that inhabit it. The costumes and sets are dreary and largely blue in tone. His strength is the way he captures and uses the facial expressions of the actors. Considering the importance on what isn’t being said, is the key element of the film. He perfectly captures the tone of Ishiguro’s novel. Each scene in the first two parts appropriately feels reflective. Along with Romanek’s attention to the actors’ faces, his other strength here is the persistent sense of fate looming over each scene, creating a distinctive atmospheric tone.
Now to get personal at the end of this review; I have a soft spot for films that deal with mortality, especially those with a unique story such as this. I have endlessly been through this realization and understanding of our eventual end. It is in the back of my head every day. Many times it is in the front. Every once in a while I will have an anxiety attack and start to hyperventilate because my perception and understanding of expiration hits me in the face. I fully relate to Cathy because our predicaments are the same. All of our predicaments are the same as Cathy’s, despite the circumstances. Never Let Me Go is all about self-reflection and looking at the past with wiser eyes. It is about how we live our lives with the time we are given. It is about our own end and how we live with that information. Death looms in every frame. It lingers in the actors faces, it pervades over every shot and it is the elephant in the room for every conversation in Garland’s script. This may add up to an overwrought film for some. The distant coldness combined with the emotional restraint has turned others off. Admittedly, the film keeps the audience at arm’s length at times. I can see why some might not connect to the film. It all worked for me though as it did for many others. This is subject matter I deeply connected with and the exploration that everyone involved contributes leads to a beautiful piece of filmmaking.