Writer Alex Garland and Director Mark Romanek faced a remarkable challenge in adapting Kazuo Ishiguro's incredibly-acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go and they wisely place a lot of the responsibility for the film version's success on the shoulders of three of the best actors of their generation but also make a few cinematic choices that drain the overall piece of some of their power. The characters and the people who play them in Never Let Me Go push the film to the point that the final act becomes remarkably effective on an emotional level but the first two acts are strained to the point that they collapse. With a style that feels too often stuck in neutral, Romanek drains the piece of most of its emotion, letting it slowly build to the climax instead of feeling as inevitably propelled there as its characters. The decision to build at such a languorous pace results in a film that never grabs you much less lets you go.
Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). The trio grew up at the private school of Hailsham, a place where they literally weren't allowed outside the grounds and were told stories about the horror that take place on the other side of them. A young Kathy (a very strong Izzy Meikle-Small) fell for a young Tommy (Charlie Rowe) when she noticed that he wasn't the most popular kid at school. Tommy isn't necessarily slow but he's more creative than intellectual and Kathy's maternal instinct kicks in as she wants to care for this sweet young man. Sadly, Kathy's best friend Ruth (Ella Purnell) also developed an interest in Tommy and the love triangle ends up being one that will define the three characters for the rest of their lives. And that's where things get interesting. A small amount of research about the book and probably a number of reviews of the film will give away the truth of the story of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy – and it's revealed very early in the film – but the previews have kept it a secret and so I will respect that as well. Suffice to say, the kids at Hailsham are not your typical students and their fate is as predetermined to be tragic as any in the history of film.
Never Let Me Go walks the very fine line between depressing and devastating. And there's a difference. The former is easy. The latter is very difficult to pull off. To try and achieve the emotional devastation, Romanek and Garland work with long takes and unnatural pauses. The action of the film is slowed to the point that the filmmakers want the audience to work their way into the movie, straining to decipher the meaning behind every pregnant pause and fill in the space between the action with our own pain at the inevitability of life. But when you let a film breathe this much, it's easy to let it suffocate. And too much of Never Let Me Go feels covered in a wet blanket and the decision to essentially remove all emotion until the final act is really as manipulative as playing melodrama throughout the piece if you really think about it.
Luckily, Romanek hired three actors who can work near-miracles with the space in-between dialogue. Mulligan proves that An Education was no fluke, doing work here that nearly matches that breakthrough performance. She's spectacular. And she's matched by her supporting stars, especially the soon-to-be-superstar Garfield, who is the face I believe most people will remember from Never Let Me Go. Despite the film's flaws, these actors make the characters three-dimensional in a way that makes them extremely memorable. I won't soon forget Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth and that's the film's most essential accomplishment. They haunt you. I wish the movie wasn't quite so easy to dismiss, but it's not easy to let these three tragic figures go either.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: September 24th, 2010
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, and Sally Hawkins
Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Alex Garland