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In Praise of Carey Mulligan, Isobel Meikle-Small and the Young-to-Old Casting of "Never Let Me Go"

By Christopher Campbell | Spout September 14, 2010 at 9:35AM

Mark Romanek's film adaptation of "Never Let Me Go," which opens in limited release Wednesday, is ultimately a let down. It begins very well, develops into a strong combo of love story and existential sci-fi, but the climax feels horribly rushed. This shouldn't come as a surprise after screenwriter Alex Garland's disappointing third act for Danny Boyle's "Sunshine," which is otherwise a gorgeous, well-acted and psychologically and philosophically stimulating story involving the sun's dual capability for giving and ending life. "Never Let Me Go" actually is quite similar to that movie, in spite of its obvious setting differences, though the life/death issue concerns an ethical conundrum involving man-made science rather than a natural occurrence and premise (albeit an implausible one). Also, it's more emotional where "Sunshine" is more cerebral.
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Mark Romanek's film adaptation of "Never Let Me Go," which opens in limited release Wednesday, is ultimately a let down. It begins very well, develops into a strong combo of love story and existential sci-fi, but the climax feels horribly rushed. This shouldn't come as a surprise after screenwriter Alex Garland's disappointing third act for Danny Boyle's "Sunshine," which is otherwise a gorgeous, well-acted and psychologically and philosophically stimulating story involving the sun's dual capability for giving and ending life. "Never Let Me Go" actually is quite similar to that movie, in spite of its obvious setting differences, though the life/death issue concerns an ethical conundrum involving man-made science rather than a natural occurrence and premise (albeit an implausible one). Also, it's more emotional where "Sunshine" is more cerebral.

I'd love to talk about the sci-fi element further, but for now I'll hold off writing a spoiler-friendly post dealing with plot holes and questions. I'm curiously waiting to see if "NLMG" gets a pass on that type of conversation given its context and tone (were it a blatant genre flick, or if it suddenly went off in a "Logan's Run" direction, or if it was an original story rather than based on a popular and acclaimed novel, it would be scrutinized more for its highly unlikely premise, I'm sure). Instead, let me focus on the first half of the film, which I love. I'm actually thinking about revisiting it in theaters and leaving after about an hour. Yes, I love it enough to pay for a full-price ticket for only half of a movie. Two main reasons: Carey Mulligan and newcomer Isobel Meikle-Small.

Let me start off by saying Romanek and casting director Kate Dowd (and whoever else was involved) did a great job finding child actors to play younger versions of Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Respectively the kids are Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe, the last of whom will be seen as little Charles Xavier in "X-Men: First Class." Resemblance-wise, particularly for the girls, it's the best young-to-old casting I've seen since "Big Fish," which had Ewan McGregor become Albert Finney and Alison Lohman become Jessica Lange. It's Buddy Swan-as-little-Orson Welles (in "Citizen Kane") good. But the thing is, the casting here is actually a greater achievement, because the difference in age between the younger and the older is only a few years. So the likenesses had to be even more spot-on.

The reason I've got more praise for Meikle-Small is because she has the first third of the film on her shoulders and she handles the responsibility extremely well without much more than facial expressions. And that perfectly fits with Mulligan's later incarnation of the Kathy character, because she too lets her face speak better than any dialogue she's given (and aside from some voice-over narration, she's not given a whole lot). Both carry their sections of "NLMG" with a series of gazes and quiet reactions and four of the saddest eyes ever put on film. I can see someone arguing that neither actresses does much more than display easily constructed looks of torment, superficial representations of heartbreak and loss. But I genuinely believed I could see into Kathy's soul via those actresses' expressive performances.

I was pleasantly surprised by Mulligan's performance here given that I found her terribly overrated and one-note in her Oscar-nominated "An Education" performance. Of course, the characterization in "NLMG" is for the most part just as thinly developed. So maybe it's less to do with her and Meikle-Small's talents than Romanek's gift with actors (he did wonders with Robin Williams in "One Hour Photo," after all) and a little bit of the way Adam Kimmel photographed them so as to have such strong auras. Like I said, I need to take another look at that first half. In the meantime, though, is there anyone else in agreement with either achievement?


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