On DVD: Never Let Me Go

Never has a coming-of-age story been crossed with dystopian historical fiction, or however you might describe the world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go” and its film of the same title. The contrast in narratives works in an effectively haunting manner here: the youthful idealism of growing up with the exposed underbelly of a seemingly perfect world. Some people will not be able to accept the society created by the film, others will see it as an opportunity for unique character study, but Mark Romanek’s work leaves a definite impression.

Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) sets the tone of a period piece. Without the narration of Carey Mulligan’s Kathy, we’d be left utterly confused. As she reflects on the past, the film takes ups back to a boarding school named Hailsham in the ’70s. The children are not brainwashed, but they’re sheltered from outside influences. We only sense trouble through a peripheral character, a teacher played by Sally Hawkins, who takes it upon herself to tell the children they’re being raised only so that they can serve as organ donors and that they might as well learn to love the little life that they’ll get to experience.

Miss Lucy is dismissed the next day, but the children don’t seem to mind. To them, life is about discovering the opposite sex and typical pre-teenage things. Kathy in particular is drawn to Tommy, a boy who is made fun of and prone to fits of rage. They begin to form a bond until Ruth, Kathy’s friend, goes after Tommy and the two become an item. The story continues when the trio becomes 18 years old and then again 10 years later. All the while, their fate becomes more and more prevalent to the viewer but almost never to them until it’s too late.

The toughest part about “Never Let Me Go” is having to accept the notion that certain children are raised only to be harvested for their organs. There is no typical sci-fi expository dialogue or other information provided through narrative. At the beginning of the film we are simply told that in the ’50s a cure for all ailments was discovered and that eventually people began living to 100 with ease. Writer Alex Garland deliberately makes the choice to never satisfy our curiosity in hopes that we might focus more on the greater notion of Ishiguro’s novel, which suggests to us what it is that truly makes life meaningful.

Bringing this message home are three of the most gifted young actors working today: Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. Knightley has the most experience of the trio, but she demonstrates an ability to act younger than her age quite well. We saw Mulligan do the same in “An Education” and Garfield also possesses a youthful quality (hence why he was cast as Spider-Man). In their expressions and reactions we feel that sense of life unfulfilled, of not truly understanding their lives, their unfortunate purpose and the consequent emotional void they possessed.

That said, these emotions are not easy to relate to and occasionally the romantic subplot takes our attention away from truly processing their emotions. Romanek’s camera gives the film the beauty it needs, but there are dull moments throughout. The pivotal scenes are quieter and brooding, asking us to open our minds more than our hearts in order to truly understand why the story was crafted this way.

Mulligan’s pitch-perfect voice-over dialogue at the end brings some needed clarity to the story and may prompt a second viewing, one less focused on plot and understanding the societal context and more interested in studying character. There’s a beautiful notion about the insignificance of the length of our days, but the lesson doesn’t feel perpetually in progress so much as we’re awakened to it at the end. Nevertheless, the touching performances and delicate craftsmanship make “Never Let Me Go” a decidedly strong film.

3.5/5 Stars

Never Let Me Go
Directed by Mark Romanek
Written by Alex Garland, Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley


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