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Sumptuous in its beauty and ponderous in meaning, Never Let Me Go features some of the finest performances of the year by its three young leads, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.  The only issue with the film is its refusal to simplify the adaptation of Kazuo Ishigoro’s surreal story of love, envy, friendship and loss, opting instead to retain the veils over his narrative, making nothing easily plain.  Even the exact determination as to the identity of our characters is vague nearly to distraction.

A story of another reality similar to ours, but surely not ours, is it?  A world too ghastly and heart wrenching to contemplate, but not terribly incomprehensible.  It’s nearly impossible to relate the plot without giving away secrets and Never Let Me Go reveals its precious few illuminations like the slow peeling of an onion, layer after layer, deliberate and studied.  We are given rare glimpses through the haze of atmosphere so carefully structured around a boarding school as seen in flashback through the eyes of Kathy M., one of its graduates.  Kathy regales us with the story of her life for as far back as she can remember it alongside her two best friends, Ruth, and Kathy’s misfit crush, Tommy.  Growing up in the English countryside, sheltered by a combination of fear and innocence, the students of the Hailsham School all know they are special; they’re told as much many times a day by their headmistress.  Why exactly doesn’t bear too much notice until a young teacher -- the latest through a revolving door of educators -- finds too much amiss and in a career-killing gesture attempts to remove the wool from over her pupil’s eyes.  It’s the first real sense of unsurety or disquiet these children have ever known.  Kathy’s group of Hailsham students, like any other schoolkids have their petty cliques complete with unnecessary cruelties and jealousies.  Despairing of Tommy’s being singled out for bullying and ridicule by the other kids for no apparent reason, Kathy’s tender heart breaks through Tommy’s loneliness.  All seems bright and rosy until Ruth covets their happiness and runs interference between the budding young couple.  Still, it’s not like Kathy has anyplace else to go, so year after year she watches the pair draw ever closer until it’s time for them to prepare to take their assigned places in society.  Old enough now to head out in the world and meet a few others already trained for their futures in their same way; the three finally question their very existences.  This venture outside the hermetically sealed lives they lived at Hailsham even causes the trio to look at their relationships with new eyes, igniting a light of hope that the fate long planned for them might not be the one they follow or perhaps at least not for a little while. 

Existentialist theatre, this.  If you’re looking for car chases and glorious explosions, move onward.  The pyrotechnics in Never Let Me Go lie in its compelling performances by Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley as Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, respectively.  In this story of friendship, love and unavoidable farewells, the young actors don’t make a single false step.  The childish selfishness of Ruth’s boy stealing, the disillusionment and constant heartache so visible in Kathy’s eyes as she amiably cuts bits of her heart out, forced to be among the pair every day and Tommy’s utter obliviousness to the havoc he’s caused between the two friends all ring true.  Once out in society, the three are frightened as deer in headlights when faced with a situation as commonplace as ordering breakfast at a diner.  Whilst adding levity, those scenes show how intensely isolated the group has always been from the rest of the world and it makes their inevitable separation even more significant.  Kathy, finally at her breaking point emotionally splits up the troika to branch out on her own as much as she can, working as a “carer” in the English health system, gently easing special patients eventually, inexorably into the hereafter.

There is a logical question which looms over Never Let Me Go and settles into the corner of the frames like a five hundred pound gorilla.  A “Why don’t they?” that is often hard to ignore as there’s never much exposition about the reasons why anything happens in the film.  If one can let go of that earthbound thought, one can enjoy this ethereal film.  I’m not sure the majority of moviegoers will be able to put it aside and thereby risk missing the point of this study of a decades-long friendship and the deep love born out of those bonds, which is no matter how much time one has, there’s never time enough, so live and love for today the best way you can.  Those who might have felt the last Ishiguro adaptation, 1993’s The Remains of the Day was too subtle or remote for their tastes will be pulling their hair out with Never Let Me Go, but had the characters’ backgrounds or lifetime itineraries had been more obvious, this might have turned into another film entirely.  Mark Romanek directs this high-wire act to an outcome that seems exactly as he intended.  The cinematography of Never Let Me Go is even more breathtaking than its acting; giving us scenes inside the bucolic boarding school and later in the hospitals so vivid one can practically smell the varnish on the wooden banisters and antiseptic in the wards.  The views of the English countryside and beaches are alternately sun-bleached or gray and damp with a frequent haze no matter what the weather, adding to the dreamlike, surreal quality of the film.  The wide landscape shots of characters alone at the edge of a long shore, or on city streets where they are often the only commuters emphasises the groups’ real isolation and alien-ness from the rest of the world from which they were so zealously hidden.

Being such a thing of dreamy imagery and subtle notions, once seen, Never Let Me Go lingers in the eye more as time passes and gently haunts like a sad, benevolent spirit.  It is a gorgeous film with powerful performances all around and deserves to be remembered come awards season.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept 15th, 2010




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