I came to this film knowing nothing about it, except that it was based on the highly-acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguru. I had no foreknowledge of its story or premise—and I’m glad.
The story begins in the present and then segues to a lengthy flashback at a traditional British boarding school, filled with seemingly ordinary boys and girls. We soon learn that these children are not leading “normal” lives at all; they have a particular destiny and are apparently helpless to change it. A new teacher (Sally Hawkins) who tries to warn them is quickly dismissed.
At this point we focus on three characters: a girl who—
—shows concern for an acutely sensitive boy, and a friend of hers who makes a move on the boy and wins him. They grow up to be Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Mulligan’s mature, contemplative face perfectly reflects the cerebral, “interior” nature of this delicate story, expertly written for the screen by Alex Garland. (I was reminded of an earlier adaptation of Ishiguru’s work, The Remains of the Day, which deals with repressed emotions—and words unspoken.)
Director Mark Romanek establishes, and maintains, a mood of melancholia and never takes a false step. His wonderful cast, cinematographer, and production designer all work toward the same goal, though perhaps his most effective collaborator is composer Rachel Portman, whose haunting score perfectly mirrors the drama onscreen. By the closing scene my eyes were tearing up.
In lesser hands this material could have fueled an entirely different film. Science-fiction authors and filmmakers have presented many views of the future, most of them bleak. Ishiguru is interested in the human toll a cold—dare I say inhuman—approach to progress may take in our society. That’s what makes his story so heartbreaking.
Many people who saw Never Let Me Go, as I did, at the Telluride Film Festival, didn’t like it. Some found it depressing; I’ve even heard it described as inert. I had no such feelings: I was swept up by the story and deeply moved by its characters’ fates and (mis)fortunes.