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STUDIO: 20th Century Fox
RUNNING TIME: 104 Minutes
- The Secrets of Never Let Me Go
- Director Mark Romanek’s On-Set Photography
- Tommy’s Art
- National Donor Programme & Hailsham Campaign Graphics
- Theatrical Trailer
- Sneak Peek (Cyrus and Fox 75th Anniversary)
Ken Loach’s Logan’s Run
Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Alex Garland (based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s (The Remains of the Day) haunting novel on love and mortality gets the prestige treatment from director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and Danny Boyle’s long-time screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later.) Kathy H. (Mulligan) is a young woman reflecting on her childhood at Hailsham, the same “special” boarding school attended by Tommy (Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley.) Like their former classmates, the three friends have a specific purpose in life, a horrible reality they’re still trying to come to terms with in adulthood as their shared destiny approaches.
Discussions of Never Let Me Go are couched in cryptic language and morbid suggestion. There’s a very good reason for that, but you won’t hear it from me. The film, like its source novel, isn’t a “mystery” in the way that The Usual Suspects is. All is not revealed moments before the end credits roll. Discussing the plot isn’t tantamount to explaining the finer points of Soylent Green or revealing Luke Skywalker’s parentage. So why all the secrecy? First off, it’s a point of courtesy; there aren’t any key plot details on the book’s jacket, only a general outline, so it’s hardly my place to spoil a novel Time dubbed “a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.” Perhaps even more importantly though, it’s better you don’t know (something the writer of the DVD blurb clearly disagrees about.) This deliberate withholding of information is a little nod to something in the film itself which I also won’t spoil because it would ruin the truly dreamlike experience of watching it.
Frustrated? Hold on. You’ll thank me later.
Never Let Me Go is a remarkable film which crafts a bleak and utterly believable alternate Britain where scientific advancements in the 1950’s have brought about medical miracles. The price for this revolution is a moral quandary which our three young protagonists find themselves on the business end of two decades later. Hailsham, a beautiful but ominous English idyll, is home to Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. It is here, tucked away in the English countryside, that they and countless other children are prepared for their brief adult lives by Miss Emily (Rampling), an existence destined to be played out in – ok, that’s enough.
Ishiguro’s novel may not be Ulysses in terms of its page count, but it’s huge in scope. Every chapter is densely layered with Kathy’s recollections of her childhood at Hailsham and awkward young-adulthood at The Cottages during the mid 80’s (a kind of transitional, university experience without the lectures) shortly before her life as a “carer” in the early 90’s. Every tangent helps prepare the central love-triangle for the difficulties to come. With so little fat, the task of trimming this story down to a reasonable cinematic length can’t have been easy. The story might easily have filled an entire mini-series without starting to sag. Nonetheless, Alex Garland makes some bold excisions. Gone are many of Kathy’s clumsy pre-Tommy romantic yearnings for example. Major story elements like Ruth and Kathy’s intimate adolescence are also condensed; consequently, we never get quite the same investment in the girls’ friendship as we do in the novel. Even the strand concerning the eponymous ballad that’s so important to Kathy and Tommy is reduced to all but its barest components. It’s one thing making composites of minor characters or taking the “key frame” approach with subplots which simply don’t have the time to be fully explored, but these omissions are costly as they dilute some key emotional beats. There’s a decent chance only those familiar with the novel will fully savour the devastating final act, as a result.
Mark Romanek deliberately backdrops the film with one stunning vista after another, wonderfully juxtaposing exquisite beauty alongside the film’s emotional grittiness. If Roger Deakins watches porn, it probably looks like Never Let Me Go. Gracenotes are dotted left, right, and centre. Some, like a metaphorical sunset watched by Tommy and Kathy, are more overt than others (Hailsham itself acting as a symbol for its students’ isolation with distant framing and long driveways.) However, they’re all equally potent thanks to Adam Kimmel’s (Capote) sumptuous cinematography. Every rain-soaked afternoon, steamy window pane, and gnarled fence feels just as Earthy and lived-in as it should in this no-frills world of hand-me-downs and leftovers. It’s the perfect treatment for Ishiguro’s crisp, uncluttered prose. If we think of the British drama scale as U.S. science fiction, Never Let Me Go is the beat-up Star Wars to Pride and Prejudice‘s box-fresh Star Trek. The “kitchen sink-ness” of it all is so well realized it might even feel formulaic to more cynical viewers, something not exactly helped by the grand orchestral score and general “tally ho, old chap” blend of dainty boys and frail little girls who are ever so frightfully quaint in their plucked sweaters. To an extent, this is an unavoidable result of the film’s period British setting. Besides, there’s far too much quality on show in front of and behind the camera to be focused on that kind of nit-picking.
Considering how popular she’s become in the last year, this might seem like an odd thing to say, but Carey Mulligan deserves to be a much bigger star. She still needs a lot more praise before people stop thinking of her as just the quirky arthouse gamine they name-drop to seem cool and start giving her the recognition she deserves. Kathy shares the same prickly vulnerability that made Jenny so stand out in An Education, but this is no mere retread. If that performance reflected on the perils of too much, too young, Kathy H. is a tragic examination of sheltered living. She’s never really had a life, like her classmates, nor will she. Moved from one building to another, “told and not told” about her purpose in life as Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) observes, and at odds with her best friend over the boy she loves, Kathy’s a flower slowly wilting under the weight of broken dreams and unrealistic expectations. It’s a harrowing existence, compounded by having to “clock in” and “out” of her own home like a prisoner thanks to a demeaning wrist bracelet – a device that puts paid to any ideas of running away, something she and her peers are indoctrinated to fear from birth anyway. Despite all this, Kathy never quite surrenders to misery. Mulligan relishes her quietly tormented stubbornness, never erupting into histrionics, a few trembling tears now and then her only real release. Even when the more belligerent likes of Ruth have already resigned themselves to their fate, Kathy musters the strength to keep her chin up. This determination gives her the only real joy in the film. Even if it is bittersweet, Kathy’s relationship with Tommy is the subtlest, most rewarding carpe diem in recent memory. Just like Ishiguro, Romanek doesn’t beat us over the head with his themes. He simply lets his leads get on with it, a show of faith that pays off handsomely.
Andrew Garfield also shows what’s making him such a familiar face. Tommy’s a little gullible and too sensitive for his own good, the teasing of which causes him great anger. Garfield certainly excels in Tommy’s fierier moments, although he’s no hair-trigger archetype. Tommy’s more of a wiry neurotic who gets worn-down gradually, not poked and prodded into frequent fits of rage. The understated air Garfield lends him makes these moments all the more potent. Think of a slightly foppish version of Nick, Jason Segel’s clumsy but lovable drummer from Freaks and Geeks, and you’re on the right track. He doesn’t lash out at other people on purpose, instead channeling his ire into artwork and mumbled awkwardness. It’s no coincidence this simmering approach parallels Kathy. The chemistry between Garfield and Mulligan is captivating, making for an unusually convincing pair of kindred spirits.
Speaking of similarities, it’s not just his leads Romanek shows faith in. The three child actors who play their younger selves carry the entire first act with poise well beyond their years. Not only do each of them resemble their adult counterparts (Izzy Meikle-Small could easily pass for Mulligan’s younger sister) but they mimic their performances with impressive ease. Romanek paired both sets of actors together, having their senior incarnations read the youngsters’ lines before shooting, even though they would never have to do so in the final film. This proves a masterstroke, smoothing the transition process between generations in Act Two comfortably.
Keira Knightley is perfectly cast as Ruth, the vindictive former Queen Bee of Hailsham. She might have been the statuesque fish in the secluded pond, but Ruth’s soon grasping for acceptance when, at 18, her safety net is suddenly removed and she finds herself at The Cottages staring down the barrel of destiny. Her visible panic at the simple task of ordering lunch in a diner in the outside world is a painful reminder of just how closeted she, Kathy, and Tommy really are. Ruth is the least sympathetic of the central trio: she’ll do anything for validation and popularity, even torment her closest friend. Knightley never lets us forget the fear driving Ruth’s selfishness though. Whilst at The Cottages, rumours begin to circulate of a possible break, if not escape, from what’s around the corner. Naturally, this creates a stir as everyone attempts to make the best of their situation however they can. It’s perfectly understandable that someone would fear being left out when taken out of a life-long safety bubble. When forced into a figurative corner, Ruth discovers a self-preservation instinct most viewers would be deluded not to empathize with. Just like the film’s muted autumnal palette, the film’s moral compass is the right shade of grey; and no-one brings it into sharper focus than Ruth. It’s not often you find a film that shows the lengths essentially good people can go to in order to protect themselves without resorting to finger-pointing, yet that’s exactly what Romanek’s film does.
If there’s one major criticism, it’s that the first act could’ve used more of Kathy’s narration to help set the scene. Mulligan’s breathy voice over flits in and out of the film, lending it a suitably literary feel. The opening half hour at Hailsham is noticeably lighter on narration than the rest though. It’s an odd omission – probably to reflect the restricted nature of Hailsham life. We, like the school’s pupils, are left to find things out in due time. It’s a nice if costly touch as it’s here that the film’s core relationships are forged. The novel meticulously teases Tommy and Kathy’s tragic love out over many pages/years, as well as her tentative friendship with Ruth. Skimming through this pivotal stage of their lives doesn’t quite reflect the nature of the central love triangle as well as its “original”, to use the story’s parlance. Ruth actually figures much like a bully to Kathy in the film’s opening sequence, confronting her introverted confidant in a passive-aggressive war of words, and showing little of the tenderness her printed counterpart was also known for. Indeed, this is so pronounced that when Ruth turns to Kathy for moral support in the film during a tough sequence at The Cottages, audiences could be forgiven for expecting Kathy to tell Ruth where to go. A quick montage in the first act could have fleshed out these dynamics without bloating the running time too much, although there’s a case that this slight difference only helps make the film its own beast.
Romanek’s film poses so many intriguing questions and offers such an array of wonderful observations on human behaviour that I can relate wholeheartedly with Alex Garland’s task of cherry picking. It was tough choosing what to praise and how to do so without treading on a gifted author’s toes. Ultimately, no review could encompass all of these positives without pushing the reader’s patience to the max and spoiling the film entirely so I’ve sprinkled only a smattering in here in the hope that you’ll find out for yourself what makes this picture and its source novel so rewarding. There’s been a lot made of this film’s resistance to classification. The truth is it’s an investing drama about finding out what it is to be human and dealing with regret. It isn’t an out-and-out “sci fi” film as some have made out, despite its narrative basis and a similar knack for holding a somewhat warped mirror to society. Trying to classify a film like Never Let Me Go is a bit like trying to pigeon-hole a person. Even the most habitual individuals are still precisely that – individual. However many labels used to categorize this film, “must-see” should be top of the list.
“A bumper crop”, one might say. Presenting what can honestly be classed a work of art such as this on a sub-par disc would have been disastrous so it’s wonderful to see Fox giving this film the treatment it deserves. The widescreen picture quality is sharper than a jilted comedian’s tongue and Rachel Portman’s haunting, mournful score should melt even the blackest hearts in the house in 5.1. Leading the special features is “The Secrets of Never Let Me Go“, a solid documentary featuring interviews with the cast, crew, and even Ishiguro. Clocking in at over half an hour, it allows the key talent plenty of scope to discuss the film’s themes and their personal working processes. As you might expect, Romanek and Ishiguro have the most to say and it’s a joy to watch two men so passionate about their work – not to mention good at it – opening up in an arena usually reserved for tawdry junket chit-chat that offers no insight at all. A commentary or two wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this doc is so detailed that one probably would’ve ended up repeating the other.
As well as the usual promos and trailers (including the slightly too revealing one for the feature presentation), a collection of galleries are also included. Romanek’s personal on-set stills, Tommy’s Art from the film, and some incredibly realistic mock-ups of *ahem* medical paraphernalia like manuals and pamphlets are every bit as beautiful as you’d expect. Instead of clicking through them one-by-one like a slide-show, they play as a short film set to the film’s rousing score. If nothing else convinces you this film is a cut above, surely the fact that even the bonus picture galleries on its DVD are classy will.
Watching Never Let Me Go shouldn’t be recommended; it should be mandatory.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars