Never Let Me Go grabs hold, but not tightly
 

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posted Friday, October 8, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 41

Never Let Me Go grabs hold, but not tightly
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Never Let Me Go
Opening October 8


Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) grew up together at Hailsham Academy, a British school for children without mothers and without fathers, but who were not orphans. They bonded over those years, striking up a connection that would remain with them into adulthood, a connection completely different from the ones all of the random, everyday people who surround them would ever be able to understand.

Based on the extraordinary novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and working from a screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), director Mark Romanek's (One Hour Photo) Never Let Me Go isn't easy to boil down into narrative simplicities. While it isn't complicated, the emotional story it tells is set in an alternative 20th-century reality where cancer is an afterthought and people routinely live into their hundreds. The central trio of characters are key reasons why this is so, and all of them navigate waters plotted out for them before their births while trying to come to grips with a life dedicated to serving those who treat them as aliens.

Ishiguro's book told this story with remarkable eloquence. It reduced me to blubbering tears a few pages before the end as the author subtly developed his narrative in a way that continually surprised me. The twists and turns were delivered with an astonishing simplicity that snuck right up on me, almost as if it were a half-remembered dream told by a narrator afraid she and her friends would be a forgotten afterthought in a world that already barely recognized their existence.

Garland's script emulates this approach the best it can, while Romanek attempts to convey the emotional crescendos with a visually sparse beauty that matches the ethereal lives of the protagonists. Who Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are and the reasons for their importance are delivered with matter-of-fact unfussiness - a line of dialogue here or the image of a carefully placed scar there tell viewers all they need to know. Every now and then, a look of disgust or fear will pass over the face of a random passerby, making the ones of compassion and tenderness from an even smaller group all the more poignant and powerful.

But where the film falls short is truly connecting with its central figures. Had I not read the book - had I not understood the complexity of their relationship, had I not known so much about Hailsham and the importance of sales and of not smoking and of keeping healthy and not being able to get pregnant and how none of the students would ever be actors or shopkeepers or professional athletes or common day laborers going in - I'm not entirely sure I'd have been willing to follow things to their inevitable conclusions. There is almost too much hinting going on, too much minimalism, and the characters never quite achieve a three-dimensional status which would make their plights, and their subdued reactions to them, fully resonate.

Said reactions are where I think many people are sadly going to have an adverse reaction. A typical gut response when faced when an unthinkable destiny is to revolt once the facts are known. When Logan knew people were dying at 30 for no purpose, he attempted to bring down the system. When the clones living inside an idyllic playground in The Island realized what their lives were meant for, they escaped and attempted to make their own way in the world. When Deckard saw that humanity could exist inside a Replicant, he took Rachael and ran.

It isn't that Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth don't try to change things; it's that the way they do it isn't exactly fiery. What people need to understand is that it doesn't need to be. Coming to the end happens to everyone, and to paraphrase a little Star Trek, how one deals with death is just as important as how they deal with life. Obstacles are everywhere and getting over them isn't always about overcoming them, victory coming not so much in the winning as it is in the facing.

For my part, I do feel like this is where Romanek and Garland get far more right than they do wrong. If someone really takes the time to dig into things and look at what is going on, much of this can echo right down into the marrow. There are scenes that speak of an emotional catharsis that's downright ebullient, and even though the outcome can be described as tragic, the way Kathy chooses to face it, and her hope for remembrance from a world that barely acknowledges her, is anything but.

Mulligan is wonderful, doing one heck of a lot with very little. Thanks to the script's refinement, a lot of what we learn about and feel for Kathy comes directly from the actress portraying her. Mulligan does this almost entirely through her eyes and her body movements, the way she reacts to the people and situations around her. What with this, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and this year's little-seen dramatic winner The Greatest, she shows she is, without a doubt, more than a one trick pony, and her stunning work in An Education is only the beginning of what I hope will be a decade-spanning career

The rest of the cast is good (especially Knightley and the three children, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell), but none are really given enough screen time. As for the supporting players, both Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins have their moments and say things of utmost importance, but once again, their characters aren't given enough to do in order to break through as fully as they should.

Even with all of this said, Never Let Me Go worked for me. While the final voiceover hits things a bit too on the nose, I felt for Kathy in ways that nearly ripped me apart. I was swept up in her journey, captivated by her resilience, and shattered by the way society was treating her. Romanek may not be able to connect all the emotional dots, but he links just enough of them to make taking the journey worthwhile. While the finished film doesn't quite latch on with the iron grip it needs to, it does leave a mark, and its ultimate beauty comes in a form I'm glad to have witnessed.



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