DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek
FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented. The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.
COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes. One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s. She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two. Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe. (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision). The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.
The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel. Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario. Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer. His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)