'Never Let Me Go' Is Dark, Moving, Brooding and Brilliant
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Staging Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed 2005 novel as a series of hushed conversations taking place in dimly lit rooms or under cloudy skies, Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go" unfolds with the beautiful poisoned grace of a viper readying to strike. The film's "twist" -- revealed by both the original novel and in the trailer -- has a sharp bite that will shock the unknowing, but it's not the film's reason for being. Instead, it's the mood and moral slowly crafted by director Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland ("Sunshine," "28 Days Later") that seep into your heart and brain drop by drop until you're surprised by how completely they fill you.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan) works as a "carer," helping patients transition through a special segment of the health-care system in Britain; her late-'90s life is contrasted with her childhood at Hailsham, a private school with its own secrets and rituals. We see Kathy's regimented childhood alongside Ruth and Tommy, and we see Kathy's silent love for Tommy drowned out by Ruth's more loudly spoken affections in their teens.
But all of this is irrelevant, even as the teenage Kathy and Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) live and love and learn, because they were told -- in violation of Hailsham policy, but told nonetheless -- at a young age that their lives are not normal. That their lives are not even theirs. They are being raised solely to provide organs for donation. They are clones, kept as healthy as possible to better provide replacement materials for others until they "complete," the program's gentle euphemism for death.
This revelation is not the film, nor is it the launching pad for escape plots and car chases, as if Romanek were making some oak-paneled accents-and-adrenaline mix of the Merchant-Ivory canon and Michael Bay's "The Island." Romanek and Garland create a world here -- one step away from ours, and at the same time entirely too close -- and its edge is sharp, swift and subtle as a scalpel parting flesh. Knightley gives a strong performance, making Ruth more than a plot-propelling series of sins and stratagems. Garfield finds something willful and yet weak in Tommy. And Mulligan makes Kathy more than just a central, centered narrator.
Many have already picked at "Never Let Me Go" from its brief spin on the fall film festival circuit -- Why don't the three escape? Why does nothing seem to happen? -- but this is tunnel vision masquerading as perception, and a lazy failure to understand that events in a film's plot are not the only measure of its purpose. Romanek's vision is meticulously constructed, from props and costumes to set design and the fall of light on a quiet afternoon. The point is not to wonder why Kathy, Tommy and Ruth do not, in their short time alive, struggle to change the injustice and inequity in their world. It is, perhaps, rather that we should ask why we, in our short time alive, do not struggle to change the injustice and inequity of ours.
Romanek's been cursed by the fates since 2002's "One Hour Photo" -- he had three films fall apart for various reasons, one after the other -- but here, he's back with a vengeance. The craft, command and care in every frame of the film is such that future generations will assuredly look at "Never Let Me Go" for a demonstration of the pure power of mise-en-scené: the harmony and energy created by every aspect of filmmaking working together in concert. Past generations, if shown the film, would be pardoned for thinking it was from Kubrick or Malick, a beautiful film about ugly truths where big ideas are expressed in small moments.
"Never Let Me Go" isn't perfect -- the closing narration is so on-the-nose it may as well be written in freckles -- but the film as a whole ripples with such compassion and passion, such intellect and instinct, such delicacy and raw power -- that it haunts and hurts in equal measure. The film takes its title from the chorus of a song, a lover's plea that twists and shifts as you contemplate it, going from promise to curse and back again. In one quiet, devastating moment, the film explicitly asks if Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have souls; even more quiet, and even more devastating, is the gradual realization that it asks us the same question of ourselves.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.