An intriguing spin on letting go

Sept. 28, 2010, 9:30 p.m. | By Eli Okun | 11 years, 2 months ago

"Never Let Me Go” tells powerful sci-fi but sometimes lacks emotional connection

In the opening scene of "Never Let Me Go,” narrator Kathy H. stares sadly through the glass panes of a hospital operating room as doctors prepare a friend's body for surgery. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) remains composed, but her eyes betray inner turmoil, even as they restrain tears from gushing forward. It's a moment that well captures the complexities of this elegant but flawed movie, an adaptation of the masterful 2005 novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro.

"Never Let Me Go” is, nominally, a science-fiction film set in a dystopian vision of Britain – one of the movie's greatest strengths is its ability to reveal its world gradually, leaving the simmer of a slow-burning suspense to propel the script along. But more importantly, director Mark Romanek tells a universal story (just as Ishiguro did) of friendship and loss. While the otherworldly elements are the most original part of the film, it is a desire for companionship that, as the title suggests, emerges as the central theme.

The film follows three close friends – Kathy, Tommy (rising star Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) – as they mature together and travel the perils of their atypical lives. Their story is comprised of three sections. The first takes place at Hailsham, the mysterious boarding school at which the trio grows up mostly removed from the outside world; the second at the Cottages, a collection of old barn houses where they move to continue their post-Hailsham seclusion; and the third nearly a decade later, when the three friends have been separated for some time and are wearing hospital gowns more often than regular clothes. The three intervals occur from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

Throughout the changes, the authenticity of the relationships that connect and sever the friends' bonds rests on uniformly powerful acting. Garfield and Knightley have showier characters often prone to violent outbursts, and the actors execute them with flair, but Mulligan deserves equal credit for a quieter lead turn that lends "Never Let Me Go” with much of its eerie calm. Actors in smaller roles – particularly Sally Hawkins as a troubled Hailsham teacher who tries to tell the students more than they're supposed to know and Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress who puts the kibosh on such openness – round out the cast admirably. Romanek bolsters their strong feel for atmosphere with moving musical choices and a muted palette that colors his characters' world in yellows and greens.

The Ishiguro book, which Time Magazine declared "the best novel of the decade,” is such a slam-dunk of a character study with heavy moral implications that Romanek's film feels inferior in comparison. The story is extremely emotional, but its adaptation can become strangely disconnected at times, especially in the Cottages segment. Blame the medium: even with a two-hour running time, the movie can't squeeze in all of the expository Hailsham scenes that are inconsequential to the larger plot but essential to character development. Without Ishiguro's uncanny observations of dialogue and the subtle dynamics of argument, supporting roles remain flat – Knightley's Ruth, in particular, comes off too much as a villain.

And just when the movie's final scenes reel viewers back into the emotional current, the film's ending is so ambiguous that it fails to encapsulate the essentials of Ishiguro's message. It's a strange editorial decision, and screenwriter Alex Garland can't escape the fault this time. Here, he whittles down the climactic speech to a few succinct lines but forgets to utter the words that hammer home who Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are, and why they exist. The dots remain unconnected, and moviegoers who haven't read the original novel will find it hard to understand the film's principal meaning by the time the credits roll.

With that significant exception, however, "Never Let Me Go” remains a stately, tasteful period piece with weighty social and medical relevance for our times. Toward the movie's end, Kathy reflects, "Maybe none of us really understand what we've lived through, or feel we've had enough time.” The screenplay ensures that the audience won't understand what the characters have lived through, either, but the desire for longer, better lives is a yearning that shoots through Kathy's tale. She can't really let her friends go, and the love that they reciprocate makes for a satisfying, unusual movie.

"Never Let Me Go” is rated R for some sexuality and nudity. The movie runs for 120 minutes and is now playing at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. It opens at the AFI Silver Theatre on Friday, Oct. 1.

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