Futuristic ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a haunting, exquisite mortality play
There are no owls or talking paintings at Hailsham, a coed boarding school deep in the English countryside, but the eager, fresh-faced children in their neat school uniforms, chanting their morning greeting to the headmistress, are as happy in their idyllic setting as any Hogwarts student. But the children of Hailsham exist in an altered reality as strange as the Harry Potter universe, and the rendering of their world and their destiny is a matter of exquisite craftsmanship in Never Let Me Go, a soulful, deeply moving, utterly pitch-perfect romantic drama from director Mark Romanek.
The film is adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), and the material brings out the best in all concerned. Working from Alex Garland’s beautifully modulated script, Romanek (best known for music videos and the suspense drama One Hour Photo) establishes himself as a master of mood and proportion. The plot borders on sci-fi, but Romanek chooses not to go in for big effects; the young protagonists’ coming-of-age drama, with all its rivalries, jealousies, reconciliations, and inevitable losses, is all the more remarkable for being life-sized and achingly real.
There’s nothing sinister about Hailsham, just a few odd details—elaborately gated grounds, gruesome tales the kids delight in telling each other about unfortunate students who tried to cross the boundary. A prologue explains that a medical “breakthrough” occurred in 1952, and by 1967 “Life expectancy had reached 100 years.”
But things seem pretty normal for a class of fourth-year Hailsham 11-year-olds in 1978. They include quiet, bookish Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), her brash, daring friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell), and Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a loner whom all the other kids torment. But Kathy befriends the misfit boy, which has an unexpected effect on previously disdainful Ruth.
By age 18, the trio have lapsed into a comfortable sort of ménage à trois. Kathy (now played by Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are still best buddies, but while she pines in secret, she’s conceded the romantic field to the more dynamic Ruth (Keira Knightley). They’ve all been relocated to the next stage of their education, a bucolic country village where they meet other (often more worldly) teens from other boarding schools and are left pretty much on their own, without a lot of intrusive adult supervision. It’s kind of like college, but without classes. All they learn about life, love, friendship, sex, dreams, and identity is made more acute by the dawning knowledge of what their true destiny is, and how fragile and limited their futures may be.
If this were a thriller, revealing the fate of these kids would be saved for a big climactic shock, followed perhaps by an attempted rebellion or escape. But Romanek eschews pulp for a far more thoughtful, and heartbreaking approach. We’re moved by these young people, so full of life, whose dreams and desires are so recognizable. As they face the constriction of their lives with varying degrees of desperation and bravado, eloquence and courage, juicy existential questions are raised about the elusive presence of the soul, whether “true love” can be quantified, measured, and “proven” as a means of salvation, and the very essence of humanity.
None of which would matter much if the characters weren’t limned with such care. Mulligan is wonderful as warm, poised, valiant Kathy, choosing to make the fullest use of the life she has been given. Garfield (soon to be seen as the next Spider-Man) plays Tommy with an awkward sweetness, bravely clinging to the last of his dreams, and Knightley makes delicate work of imperious Ruth, a bright star flaming out fast, burdened by regret and craving atonement.
The title refers to a bluesy torch song on an audio tape young Tommy gives Kathy early on; the little girl plays it over and over in a kind of rapture, a forbidden glimpse into all the mysteries of grown-up life soon to be revealed. But however unreal the setting may seem, the fact is that we all have to let go eventually, in this world or any other. How we choose to use the time in between is what gives this beautiful film its universality, and haunting emotional power.
NEVER LET ME GO
With Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley. Written by Alex Garland. Directed by Mark Romanek. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 103 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>