Carey Mulligan as Kathy
Andrew Garfield as Tommy
Keira Knightley as Ruth
Izzy Meikle-Small as Young Kathy
Charlie Rowe as Young Tommy
Ella Purnell as Young Ruth
Charlotte Rampling as Miss Emily
Sally Hawkins as Miss Lucy
Kate Bowes Renna as Miss Geraldine
Hannah Sharp as Amanda
Christina Carrafiell as Laurs
Directed by Mark Romanek
This review is part of ComingSoon.net’s coverage of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
Science fiction can take many different forms, but in this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel by Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”), it takes the form of a period piece set in an alternate Britain where people can live forever due to a new breakthrough in medical technology. More than that, the movie is about a love triangle between two girls, Kathy, the narrator of the story, her friend Ruth, with a shy but artistic young boy named Tommy, beginning at their early days at a private school in the British countryside called Hailsham. Tommy is teased mercilessly by his classmates until the sympathetic Kathy steps forward and befriends him, but as they get older, Ruth also sets her sights on Tommy despite not being as caring for his needs.
Whether or not you’ve read Ishiguro’s novel on which this is based, you’ll probably figure out the mild “twist” before it’s spelled out by Sally Hawkins as the new “guardian” at the school. We won’t give it away here, but it has something to do with the reasons why students aren’t allowed to leave the school grounds as well as most of the motivations that drive their story. The Hailsham segment of the film consists of roughly 25 minutes of unknown younger actors as the leads, but by the time you’ve adjusted to them, the movie jumps forward nine years as they’re replaced by their older (and better-known) counterparts. Having turned 18, the trio of friends are leaving Hailsham for the outside world, something they’re ill-prepared for despite all the training they’ve been given. By then, Ruth and Tommy have become a couple despite Kathy and Tommy’s earlier connection, leading to conflict between the two young women. By the next jump forward, Kathy has become a “Carer’ whose job it is to soothe those undergoing a very specific medical procedure. When she’s reunited with her former friends, they try to find closure for the incident that drove a wedge in their friendship.
For a film that’s at least partially about romance, “Never Let Me Go” lacks the strong emotional impact one would probably hope for, and much of that comes down to the unfortunate casting of Keira Knightley as Ruth, her bitchy behavior reminding us of the character she played in “Atonement” especially with the way her conflict with Kathy plays out. The lack of emotional weight isn’t helped by the awkward pairing of Knightley with Andrew Garfield, who mostly acts dopey, sporting a shaggy mop that doesn’t make him that attractive. For whatever reason, Ruth’s long hair also gets more unkempt as she gets older despite all of the kids being fairly well-groomed while at Hailsham. Mulligan gives the strongest performance of the trio though she’s not able to keep the viewer invested in her story as she has done so well in other films. Romanek’s biggest obstacle is that he’s trying to instill emotion into a viewer who may not care for two-thirds of the cast at all.
That being said, it’s a beautifully-shot film that creates a languid mood that works well for the material, ably enhanced by Rachel Portman’s stirring string arrangements that do their best to create emotion in scenes that would normally feel flat otherwise. Whether intentionally or not, the movie does open discussion about weighty real world medical issues like stem cell research and cloning, although these seem far too important to trivialize within what’s essentially a teen love triangle. Granted, much of why the film doesn’t work may be traced back to the source material and what Ishiguro was trying to accomplish within the context of what would normally be considered a science fiction premise, but after the promise of Mark Romanek’s debut “One Hour Photo,” it’s disappointing how long we had to wait for such a disappointing follow-up.
The last segment tries to resolve everything that came beforehand, though it’s just more talking between the three leads about how they can get out of their situation, ending with a somewhat heartfelt voice-over narrative by Kathy to wrap up the story which does little to help one forget how stagnant the film was up until the last five or ten minutes.
The Bottom Line:
Some people may appreciate “Never Let Me Go” for its original take on a not particularly original premise, though others are likely to find it too tedious and depressing to put much thought into what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.