‘Never Let Me Go’ Is a Haunting, Devastating Film that Reveals Its Secrets with Whispered Precision

[10 February 2011]

By Kate Spatola

It’s an odd, and rather rare, occurrence to be so moved by a work of art that in your compulsion to share with others your enthusiasm you feel obliged to hold back all that you wish to say.  So it is that I find myself hesitating in writing this review for the obligation to detail plot and character feels like an act of betrayal to the beauty and power of discovering Never Let Me Go.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is often described as a sci-fi, dystopian drama.  As with any label, the classification is not entirely misleading but does contribute to an overall reduction of the scope and power of this unique and truly emotional story.  The beauty of both the novel and the film is the embrace, resistance and defiance of simple categorization.  Never Let Me Go is an intentionally amorphous work of art whose fluidity allows for layered storytelling and perpetual revelation.

Even those unfamiliar with Ishiguro’s novel will quickly discern something sinister and not quite right about the world presented in the cinematic adaptation of Never Let Me Go.  The film opens in the early-‘90s as Kathy (Carey Mulligan), a young carer, looks on as a surgical team readies a man for an operation.  As Kathy gazes through the glass at him, she begins a hushed and gentle narration of reminiscence that guides the audience and her back through her early childhood.

The male patient, Tommy (Andrew Garfield), turns out to be one of two important friends, alongside Ruth (Keira Knightley), from Kathy’s days at Halisham Academy.  Upon first glance Halisham appears as any other boarding school tucked away in the rumpled beauty of the English countryside.  However, its traditional and pastoral setting belies the real purpose of the education and training undertaken by Halisham students.  Under the tutelage of guardians, led with distant assurance and authority by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), the young students of this academy are being groomed not for scholarly achievement but rather, for organ donation.

Only suggested hints of explanation for the how and why of so ghastly an enterprise are offered.  The revelation is gradual and the discovery is crafted so expertly that overlooked connections are all but encouraged.  Halisham rituals and customs are initially presented as unique only to the strict demands of this institution and not as something far more insidious.  The detection is gradual as critical moments of shattered normality are organically integrated and linger in isolation for only brief and vague moments of effect.  Audience revelation of the larger purpose comes in time with that of the children themselves. 

Never Let Me Go is a slow, quiet and deliberately paced film that reveals its secrets with whispered precision.  Devastation and anger accrete as the children age to young adults and realize that their favored status as Halisham students offer no reprieve for the life they were conceived to complete.  This acknowledgment and resignation is both disturbing and hauntingly beautiful. 

Though they were bred and raised for donation these clones have a fundamental dignity in spite of the cruelty of their existence.  They possess an indomitable humanity far greater and more profound than the fully human population they are obligated to keep alive and healthy through the ‘gift’ of their organs.  What devastates is less the cruelty imposed on the children than the continual hunger for life and love despite acceptance of their fate.

There is much more to the story that is best left to discovery.  To say that Never Let Me Go is about nature, science, love, humanity, individuality, hubris, mortality and life would only begin to touch the surface of this deeply moving and thought-provoking tale.

Never Let Me Go is a mannered film whose every shot is framed with restraint. Through its muted palette, hushed tones and languid pacing, the film seeks to represent the suffocation of emotional and individual expression demanded of these donors. Some may find such an approach as too languid and suffused with ambiguity and be quick to dismiss the emotional journey of the characters as an act of manipulation through obfuscation.  To do this, however, would be a shame, for the film, like the book, is a work to be considered and cannot be rushed forward for easy resolution.

That the movie does not completely succeed in capturing the full emotional punch of Ishiguro’s novel is hardly the mark of failure.  Whilst emotional intensity may relate both film and literature to shared experiences, the two mediums can never be fully complimentary.  Through meticulous extraction and with deep reverence to Ishiguro’s novel both the screenwriter, Alex Garland, and the director, Mark Romanek, have crafted a film that is faithful and worthy of the original story.

The actors, though uniformly strong, never quite reach the emotional depths of their individual characters.  Mulligan is strongest amongst the main cast and brings to the role of Kathy, a quiet inner humanity whose integrity is protected by the emotional restraint she must employ professionally.  Garfield, though less successful in his portrayal of Tommy, does hint at the enormous possibility of his talent.

Whether on page or on screen much of the pleasure of Never Let Me Go seems to come from what audiences are forced to detect and extract from the text.  Nothing is explicit here and what is revealed is earned as opposed to dismissively given.

The DVD release of Never Let Me Go comes packaged with an assortment of standard-issue supplemental features.  Among the offerings are The Secrets of Never Let Me Go, an extended featurette which is, refreshingly, an actual behind-the scenes documentary.  There are interviews with cast and crew on the filmmaking process and audiences can clearly see the passion, attention and great care brought to the adaptation of Ishiguro’s beloved novel.  Other offerings include trailers, Mark Romanek’s on-set photography, a detailed portfolio of Tommy’s Artwork from the film and other art and design features critical in establishing the look and feel of the film.

Though it proved a disappointment at the box office Never Let Me Go will hopefully find a larger audience and achieve its deserved success on the home-video market.  In fact, it could be argued that home viewing is a better environment in which to observe and absorb the quiet and subtle intensity of so powerful a tale.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136935-never-let-me-go/