Mark Romanek, directing his first feature since the tantalizing Robin Williams thriller One Hour Photo, has confronted the heavy task of adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s devastatingly effective 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is no stranger to the world of cinema; his other recognized work, The Remains of the Day, was adapted into a film that received a total of eight Oscar nominations. Never Let Me Go, however, seems unlikely to have a similar fate. The combination of a disturbing subject matter and a fittingly distant emotional approach has prompted mixed reviews across the board.
At the same time, though, the challenges that Romanek presents are also what makes his film so unique. The cinematography employed by Adam Kimmel (Capote) is both bright and bleak at the same time. As a result, the clean visual texture of the film captivates while never actually spelling out the emotions for the audience. Even the film’s title cards are displayed on a handful of monotone shades.
Unlike a lot of dystopian fiction, the film is set in the past; the mid-to-late 1900s, to be precise. This allows the excellent production designer Mark Digby (The American) certain freedoms in creating a navigable, if sometimes off-putting, environment. The film is cold, sure, but not in the same ways as a lot of other science-fiction. Aside from the bookends, the biting tone isn’t revealed through hospital windows and ice-cold machinery; it is developed through the vast fields through which the protagonists travel, and the constantly impending threats of rain and wind.
This discussion of setting is crucial because I am a believer of the position that the best science-fiction, first and foremost, presents a believable setting. Ishiguro’s novel does this unquestionably, and in a mere two hours — versus the 288 pages that Ishiguro had to work with — Romanek’s adaptation does this about as well as it could have.
Without delving into spoilers, since the mystery of the society (especially with regard to the novel) is part of its power, let’s at least outline the main characters. They are Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth — three childhood friends who seem destined to spend their entire lives in each other’s company. The film’s first act takes place at Hailsham, an English boarding school whose function is embodied by its callous and purposeful headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling).
In these sequences, the main characters are played by three capable child actors: Isobel Meikle-Small plays Kathy; Charlie Rowe plays Tommy; and Ella Purnell plays Ruth. I understand that great care was taken to make sure the child actors resembled their adult counterparts, and the impact is worth the struggle. The Hailsham scenes are pivotal in introducing their distinct personalities: Kathy is sweet, smart, introverted; Tommy is passionate, fiery, but also very sweet; and Ruth’s strength and decisiveness are overshadowed by her self-centered nature.
It is an intricately defined love triangle that admittedly carries a bit more meaning in the novel. Ishiguro’s work benefits from Kathy’s tender narration, and even though screenwriter Alex Garland was careful to include several voice overs throughout the film, the effect cannot compare. Kathy discusses so many nuances in the book that couldn’t possibly be translated on-screen with the same force.
For this reason, the Hailsham scenes feel somewhat rushed. Garland tends to force the roles of the main characters without letting their personalities develop naturally. It must be noted, though, that Garland’s missteps are due to economy. One need only to note the final Hailsham scene to conclude that Garland wanted to get into adulthood as quick as possible without monopolizing the vital introductory elements. The fact that Garland relies on only one scene — a speech given by the Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) character — to deliver the shocking purpose of the Hailsham institution reinforces these time constraints.
Once the film segues away from Hailsham, we are taken to The Cottages, which is where the grown-up versions of the main characters spend their years after leaving the boarding school. Despite forming a wholesome bond with Kathy (now played by Carey Mulligan) during their childhood, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) finds himself in a steady relationship with Ruth (Keira Knightley). This makes Kathy an outsider at The Cottages as the other inhabitants are in relationships as well.
The performances Romanek gets from his three leads are superb. While Carey Mulligan may have had been blessed with snappy dialogue for her An Education role, I was more interested in her muted approach here. There is a lot of subtext in the performance, and it’s a remarkable actress that can cry this much on screen and still come off as very guarded; not once does her work feel melodramatic. After delivering a great sympathetic portrayal in The Social Network, Andrew Garfield shows terrific range with his very different characterization of Tommy. The savvy ambition and three-piece suits he wore in David Fincher’s film are replaced by an unpredictable emotional storm that is represented by his character’s far-too-baggy wardrobe. (Garfield also has another standout moment near the end that pierces the heart.) Keira Knightley is burdened with the least likable role, but she pulls it off sublimely, giving her most accessible performance to date.
Many viewers will feel that Never Let Me Go is slowly-paced. Yet there is an assured sense of control to each and every scene that keeps the film from dragging. In many ways, the delicate pace and emotional restraint of the film allow for an interesting comparison to Anton Corbijn’s The American.
Those who have read the Ishiguro novel won’t find much to dislike here. Garland’s screenplay is efficient and loyal, and Romanek clearly mirrors that same respect for the source material. It is the uninformed audience members that may struggle to connect. Some key elements and vocabulary of the novel are explained rather quickly, which could frustrate viewers to the point of abandon. But those viewers willing to accept these roadblocks will be rewarded with an uncompromising dystopian adaptation that can proudly stand on its own feet as a stirring piece of cinema.
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