Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” is a book considered by TIME Magazine to be the best novel of the decade. Such a distinction is daunting for a film adaptation and for anyone that’s read it you will find Alex Garland’s adaptation sticks to the story, but leaves out a lot of the in-between moments. It’s either that, or director Mark Romanek decided to nix elements of the story for the sake of keeping the film as tight as possible, because Never Let Me Go goes by at an alarmingly brisk pace. This, unfortunately, results in an efficient film that is more sterile than emotionally impactful.
As beautifully shot as Never Let Me Go is, and as lyrical and softly compelling as it may be, it still feels cold and out of arm’s reach. I felt the same way with Romanek’s 2002 feature directorial debut, One Hour Photo, and it seems not much has changed in eight years.
Never Let Me Go is set in something of a parallel universe, opening in 1978, and introducing us to Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) — three students at Hailsham boarding school. We meet them here as their younger selves, portrayed by child actors (Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe) with alarming similarities and talent to their adult counterparts.
At Hailsham the secrets of the story begin to come together, but like Ishiguro’s novel, the secret isn’t kept in an effort to create some twisty reveal as much as it is simply treated as a way of life and not something that’s necessarily being kept hidden. Nevertheless, to spoil it would be to cheat you of the experience.
As the story progresses from the late ’70s to early ’90s, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy come of age and go about their lives in a soulful examination of something not so far outside the realm of possibility and comprehension and may cause you to take a closer look at your own life. Unfortunately, this drastically abridged telling of the story leaves out intimate details, never allowing the relationships between the core trio to resonate beyond what Mulligan’s voice over tells us or the occasional extended scene allows.
The three leads turn in excellent performances, doing all they can as they are rarely given much time to build characters beyond the facts of Hailsham and what becomes of them afterward. Mulligan and Garfield are given the bulk of the screen time while Knightley is relegated to playing the wholly unsympathetic Ruth, a character whose scenes come and go giving us absolutely no understanding as to what’s motivating her or going on in her head.
Romanek doesn’t sow any seeds in this garden, instead he plants full grown flowers which are asked to immediately blossom as soon as he turns on the camera. The situations and characters he’s dealing with need far more nurturing and room to breathe than he gives them. I can understand treating the film’s “secret” as if it was commonplace, but the reactions and motivations of the characters as they learn new details about their lives and each other need to come from somewhere deeper as opposed to always reacting to whatever happened five minutes earlier.
As someone who’s read the book perhaps I expected too much. Rachel Portman’s score and Adam Kimmel’s (Capote) cinematography are in tune to the story where Romanek seems all-too-ready to move things forward. I wish the camera had been left to linger and at other times been more exploratory and offered more “fly on the wall” moments. Instead we just move from scene to scene with very little regard for what’s happening other than an interest in getting to what’s next. Of course someone looking to spin this could examine the film the same way the film examines life.
We often rush through life with little disregard for the present until we get to the end and all we have are memories of what we’ve done. No matter how short or how long, if it was a good life we don’t want it to end and if it’s a bad one it may be the best time to go. If I were to look at this film that way perhaps I’d call it a masterpiece… I don’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others do.