Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It opened the London Film Festival. It’s based on a book that’s already acquiring ‘modern classic’ status. It’s from the writer/producer team behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine. And it seems to be a contractual obligation to refer to its leads as “three of Britain’s youngest, hottest stars”.

Never Let Me Go arrives trailing a lot of hype and carrying a considerable weight of expectation. Happily, it more than delivers. This is a powerful, melancholy and deeply moving film that does justice to a complex novel while undoubtedly standing as a work of art in its own right.

Copy picture

Like the book, it resists attempts at genre pigeonholing – part coming of age tale, part science fiction, part dystopian allegory – but is probably best described as a classic, and very British, love story. That may sound strange, given that the director is American. But like the novel’s author Kazuo Ishiguro (who was born in Japan but has lived in Britain since he was six) Romanek demonstrates a deep understanding for the country and its culture, while at the same time being able to cast an outsider’s eye on some of its darker aspects.

These are evident from the start; after a brief prologue the narrator Kathy (Mulligan) take us back to her childhood, at a boarding school in the late Seventies. Anyone who grew up then will recognise the evocative images of bland food, rainswept sports fields and friendships and enmities already being forged. Yet there’s something different about Hailsham. The school song is a hymn to self-sacrifice and community spirit, but with no reference to God. And the boundary fence has a talismanic quality, with horrific stories recalling the fates of anyone who dared to go beyond it.

To say much more would be to give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say this is an alternative England where science has wrought two major changes. Inevitably, the film gets to the heart of the matter much quicker than the book, which lessens the atmosphere of foreboding and tension but hits the viewer with an emotional body blow early on. Again, without giving too much away, these children’s fate as adults has already been decided. Yet they continue, under the stern but benevolent eye of the headmistress (Rampling). And Kathy finds herself protecting Tommy, a sensitive misfit with a passion for art, a constant target for the bullies. She falls in love with him and tries to stop her best friend Ruth from joining in the general teasing. But by the time they leave school, Tommy and Ruth have become a couple.

Their next stage is The Cottages, a rural retreat which replicates some elements of the university house-sharing environment, though again with constant jarring notes. Kathy continues to protect, and carry a torch for, the adult Tommy (Garfield). But Ruth (Knightley) is acutely aware of this. As jealousy and infatuation amongst the trio reaches a peak, their housemates hatch a plan to find out more about the “other world”. And they speak of a rumour that the inevitable can be “deferred” if an individual can prove they have creative talent – or a couple can prove they’re in love...

In the wrong hands this could have been a clunking, manipulative heartstring-puller. But the delicacy and restraint of Garland’s script and Romanek’s direction are a perfect example of “less is more”. The characters’ diffidence in expressing what they truly feel, or making any challenge as they realise more and more of the grim truth – no matter how their love triangle resolves itself, their fate will be the same- renders the tragedy all the more poignant. The autumnal palette of the cinematography and music enhances this without ever becoming too overbearing.

It’s a film with a lot of ideas – what makes us people; how life wears us all down and depletes us in some way; how easily a solution to a problem can become accepted with no thought to the ethical dimension or the human cost – but its core is still a masterly study of three fragile, damaged people trying to be happy in a society which regards their emotional life as utterly irrelevant.

Cinematically, there are echoes of everything from The Midwich Cuckoos to 1984, as well as the character studies of Japanese masters like Yasujiro Ozu. And of course Merchant Ivory’s celebrated adaption of another low-key Ishiguro masterpiece, The Remains Of The Day. The measured pacing and emphasis on subtlety over action are perhaps not quite what you’d expect from producer Andrew Macdonald (whose first big successes were Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) or writer Garland, who collaborated with Macdonald and director Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

But they’ve both caught what really works about the novel, and it’s hard to imagine even Boyle doing a better job than Romanek (better known for music videos, with One Hour Photo the major feature-length credit on his CV) in bringing to life its vision of a stifling, Orwellian but all-too-recognisable Britain turning the horrific into a matter of bureaucratic routine and euphemistic language.

The three leads are all terrific - as indeed are their school-age counterparts Izzy Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe. Mulligan is almost unbearably moving at times; the eternal plain best friend, devoting her life to caring for Tommy and others like him but more clear-headed than anyone about the reality of their situation. Knightley builds on her work in Atonement and The Duchess to create a study of a fragile and complex young girl, unsure of everything in her life – including her power over Tommy and her capacity to hurt Kath. And when the Spiderman media storm hits Garfield I hope he’ll keep finding room in the schedule for stuff like this. His Tommy is a compelling mixture of innocence and passion, desperate to find a place in the world but doomed to be constantly beaten back by reality.

It’s true there’s not many laughs to be had, and some scenes do succumb to the temptations of melodrama. But overall, this is cinema which connects with the heart and the head. Top-drawer novels don’t always get the film adaptation they deserve. This one does.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2010
Share this with others on...
Never Let Me Go packshot
Adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's best-selling novel about love and loss.
Amazon link

Festivals:

London 2010

Search database: