Monday, 14 November 2011

Film Review | Never Let Me Go, dir. Mark Romanek

Never Let Me Go should be a brilliant film.

From One Hour Photo director Mark Romanek to screenwriter Alex Garland, who originated the scripts of such genre touchstones as Sunshine and 28 Days Later, all the pieces appear arrayed in readiness for something truly transcendent. And of course the cast - led by the thinking man's crumpet Carey Mulligan (late of Drive and An Education) and ably supported by Academy Award-nominee Kiera Knightley and Spider-man to be Andrew Garfield - the cast is marvelous.

Never mind that Never Let Me Go is based on a contemporary classic if ever there was one; the book by Kazuo Ishiguro stands among the new century's most celebrated - "the best of the decade" according to Time Magazine - and Garland's painstaking adaptation is fairly faithful to it. In fact the single biggest difference between the estimable source material and the film is the revelation that the three characters at the heart of Never Let Me Go's narrative are clones - Donors - bred from test tubes specifically for their organs. This harrowing circumstance only becomes apparent to the reader around the midpoint of Ishiguro's novel; in the adaptation, however, the audience knows from the get-go... though Kathy, Tommy and Ruth remain woefully unaware.


Now change is never easy, nor easily received, but in this instance, I think, it's a change for the good of all involved, at least in theory, because Never Let Me Go has had such a wide reach that few viewers are likely to see the film of it, six years on, without some precognition of the twist, such as it is. Romanek and Garland are wise to cast aside such pointless obfuscation, and the decision to let us in on the terrible truth of these characters' lives implicates the audience in an interesting way.

Otherwise, Never Let Me Go the movie is in narrative and thematic terms much of a muchness with Never Let Me Go the book. It is the tale of three Donors coming to terms with what they are, yes - and sooner rather than later - but also who they are. In the face of utter nonchalance on the part of those people whose lives they have been bred to extend, and those institutions which have arisen to supervise the system, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth long to find love and live life in what little time they have left to them.

They needn't look far. But though Kathy and Tommy seem born to be with one another, Ruth - a sociopath of sorts played with pitch-perfect hysteria by the oft-underrated Kiera Knightley - Ruth cannily beats Kathy to the punch, winning Tommy's lust, if not his love, before quiet little Kathy can tell him how she feels. It's this heartbreaking love triangle that carries the viewer through the lives of these three star-cross'd Donors, from the austere boarding school at Hailsham where they spend their formative years to the homes and hospitals they each end up in, as they edge ever closer to "completion."

As aforementioned, Knightley equips herself very well as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield is an acceptable Tommy, but it's the two young actresses who portray Kathy at various stages of her short life that really steal the show. It doesn't hurt that Isobel Mielke-Small and Carey Mulligan actually look quite alike, yet the correspondence between their respective performances - all nervous energy and thousand-yard stares - runs much deeper, lending a real sense of continuity to Kathy's character that the other leads lack in comparison.

Nor does Mark Romanek disappoint. A director only occasionally given to come outside his comfort zone - which is to say the music video - Romanek's first feature since One Hour Photo seems somewhat removed from the clinical imagery of that Robin Williams vehicle, but not entirely: here however the filmmaker's sterile sensibilities are filtered through the necessarily more naturalistic lens of rural England in the 60s and 70s. In feeling and appearance, then, Never Let Me Go is a bleak, bleached thing - windswept, you sense, and bitterly, bitterly cold - yet it is beautiful, too.

So what's the problem? Because there is a problem. Never Let Me Go should be a brilliant film - all the parts are in place - but in the end it is no more than a faithful but unremarkable adaptation of a remarkable novel. The fault, I think, lies with the decision to arrive at the revelation that our characters are clones early on. Much as I understand the reasons for it in principle, in practice this gloss of the period during which the three Donors wonder what in God's name is going on comes at a cost: namely the development of a halfway heartfelt dynamic between Ruth and Kathy and Tommy. Lacking that, the betrayals of fate and friendship that Never Let Me Go turns on feel not exactly empty, but inevitable.


  1. I always find it kind of weird to hear NLMG described in terms of 'the twist' and the 'revelation' as if this story(I can't speak for the movie) were some kind of esoteric The Sixth Sense. Admittedly it's been a while since I read it, but I recall thinking less that the book was building to a revelation than rolling to an inevitable conclusion. The protagonists, for the most part, being as resigned to their fate as soldiers who know they must go to war (In the book, didn't the clones know what they were from the beginning? I thought they did. Wasn't the purpose of their lives made clear, and presented as a duty and honor from the get go? I thought it was. Surely my memory isn't that flawed? ( though I'm willing to agree it might be!! I'm feeling more and more elderly by the second)

  2. I may well be misremembering, but I think in the book the kids do know what they are and what they're for from a fairly early age, as you say Celine, but we as readers don't realise what it means to be a Donor till a little later in the game... though by then we've probably put two and two together.

    Or am I off my rocker? :/

    Agreed as to how unhelpful it is to hear Never Let Me Go described in the same sort of way as movies like The Sixth Sense, which assuredly it is not. I've tried not to do that, but... well. Niallblogfail.

  3. NO!! I didn't mean to imply Nialblogfail! Absolutely not. I was just feeling - once again - a little out of step with the general discussion of this (IMHO) subtle, tragic, story. As I said, to me, NLMG was an exploration of self imposed inevitability and the mindless acceptance of one's place in a society which has decided some are worth less than others. I've rarely seen that aspect of the book explored and it makes me wonder if I've just read more into it than is there.