Lovely and melancholy, poignant and chilling, “Never Let Me Go” is an old school sci-fi dystopia with lovely, wistful performances that never quite overcome the fatalism that hangs over the whole affair.
Music video director Mark Romanek’s film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is an arid take on an alternate reality where disease, death and dying have been beaten back by a medical and moral breakthrough. Organ transplants were perfected in the 1950s. Life is better, longer. So why is no one smiling?
Carey Mulligan is Kathy, narrator of the tale, a sensitive, thoughtful soul who, even in the blush of youth, spends “most of my time not looking forward, but looking back.” What she recalls is her upbringing in an orphanage where children are cared for by the stern, emotionless headmistress (Charlotte Rampling). “Keeping yourselves healthy is of paramount importance.”
Despite the care, the idyllic country setting, there’s a Dickensian sadness to this place, where the children save good behavior tokens to buy cast-off toys and clothes donated from the outside world, a world they aren’t allowed to visit. Very soon they and we learn the source of that sadness, a “reveal” that isn’t so much a surprise as a foregone conclusion. I’m putting more effort into keeping the film’s secrets than the director did.
Kathy falls, as a child, for Tommy, a creative kid, but a chronic tantrum tosser. But her best friend, Ruth, snatches him away. And as they all grow up into Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, the ramifications of this love triangle take center stage as they, and the viewer, consider the ethics one must live by — that the one lesson their one honest teacher can teach them is the only one that matters.
“You have to know who you are, and what you are,” she says. And you have to decide how you’re going to live your life, early on. Over the ensuing years, the kids — Kathy says — cope with their fate, to be “donors” or “carers” on their way to “completion.”
The trio of fine young actors make “Never Let Me Go” work. Mulligan lets us feel the emotions Kathy can’t express as she sits, alone on her bed, listening to an ancient cassette of torch songs by Judy Bridgewater. Things left unsaid only compound the tragic overtones of these seemingly joyless lives. Knightley suggests Ruth’s fiery determination to not have her life’s course determined. And Garfield magnifies Tommy’s pliable innocence — a guy who isn’t quite as tuned in as Ruth or Kathy, the very embodiment of the hope that the film suggests is the one thing that keeps us going.
But there are no highs in this film, no levity or thrills. “Never Let Me Go,” which opens Friday at the Enzian, is “Blade Runner” without the shootouts, “Logan’s Run” without the running, “Children of Men” without the hope. It’s a dry-eyed weeper that makes its surprises so obvious that they aren’t surprises at all — merely waypoints the film reaches as it makes us consider our humanity, and theirs.
That is enough to give “Never Let Me Go” the emotional weight of a good film if not the transcendent glow of a great one.
See for Yourself
“Never Let Me Go”
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mark Romanek
Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes
Industry rating: R for some sexuality and nudity