“We didn’t have the Gallery to look into your souls. We had it to see if you had souls at all,” says Miss Emily to her former students in the new picture, “Never Let Me Go,” by former music video director, Mark Romanek. It is a line of such melodrama, taken out of context it would be easy to dismiss. However within Romanek’s painfully lush film the melodrama plays, fitting snuggly into the fabric of the film like a well placed stitch. With all the woefully weighty lines, the soft vibrancy of the images, and the understated, moving performances the picture left me feeling hollow, though intellectually that may have been the point.
The film begins in 1978 at a quaint boarding school in rural England called Hailsham, where three young people, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), live and go to school. From the outset it is obvious that there is something off about the institution. Every child is accounted for with a bracelet and a door sensor, and they are all very naive to the outside world. Romanek uses the both the quasi-Sci Fi aspect of the children’s behavior to put the audience on edge, and keeps them there from beginning to end. From child to adult performer each one keeps up a sense of otherness from the viewer that they seem almost alien throughout the film.
Though they are not aliens. Very quickly it becomes clear, but never really explicit, that Kathy, Ruth, Tommy, and all the kids at Hailsham are clones, made for the specific purpose of organ donation when they grow up. One of the films strengths is its ambiguity, but also one of the weaknesses. When they get older both Kathy and Ruth yearn to find some hint as to whom is their “Original.” The script by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, has a couple scenes dealing with this theme, but the film is more concerned with the concept of “love” than the cloning aspect, and as such,it is never fully explored.
As they get older Ruth and Tommy become romantically entangled, but it is really Kathy and Tommy who are in love. Though most of the film could have been very heavy handed, Romanek and his actors display impressive restraint with the material. Out of the cast, Mulligan and Garfield, the rising stars of the trio, prove that they are worth the hype in this film that shows off their acting aplomb, only weeks before the respective releases of big budget studio pictures (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and “The Social Network”) that have the potential of elevating their paychecks, but having their talents get lost in the mix. Equally engaging is Knightley, who at twenty-five, the same age of Mulligan, is the elder stateswoman of the three, but does not manage to dominate every scene. In fact she melds well, portraying Ruth with a sad complexity you won’t see in the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
That is not to say the film itself isn’t heavy handed. That is also not to say that it is a bad thing. To be sure, “Never Let Me Go” is a very melodramatic film, but Romanek deals with it well. The music by Rachel Portman and the photography by Adam Kimmel are spot on. While that is to be expected from a guy who got his start in music videos, Romanek handles both tremendously better here than in his previous feature, the truly awful, “One Hour Photo.”
All of the little pieces build a puzzle that was more about tone than character or plot. The film is deliberately paced, which is just critic speak for slow in a good way, and the film has an undeniable power that sneaks up on the audience through a haze of slightly off-putting difference.
But along with all the beauty at the end I was left feeling like I didn’t really get to know any of the characters. Most times this would be a criticism, but in this film the idea is that the three characters really have no personality. They have been shuttered away from society for so long, sequestered, and forced to only intermingle that they have no real humanity. Could the Hailsham student’s existence be analogous to those of the youngest generation toiling away behind the curtain of social networking, never truly interacting, but living behind a shroud of what society really has to offer?
During her final voice over Kathy compares her life to those who have the privilege of living in the outside world. Making the comment that maybe her lack of any “Soul” is no different than the ones for whom she was created to save. No one really ever gets what they want, no one ever really lives the way they think they should, and in the end everyone dies unfulfilled. If these clones are no different from anyone else, then history has no meaning, ancestry has no meaning, leaving us only to deal with the present. The question of a soul becomes immaterial, and only the fact of living has substance. The hollowness that I felt walking out of the film was not put there by accident, but an intended result of having to identify with a hollow character, causing me to examine my own futile pursuits, and wonder what the point of any of it really is. And for that feeling I applaud Mr. Romanek, but I also blame him. I’m going to tweet about it now.
El Luchador Rating: 5 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)