Never Let Me Go

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Toronto Film Fest (World Premiere)—Mark Romanek’s anticipated second feature, “Never Let Me Go,” seems a dream project that marries a highly skilled and interesting formal personality to demanding material (the source novel of Booker prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro).
So, why, given the talent, combined with an interesting cast, does the finished work feel so bloodless and drained of any real vitality, insight or point of view?
“Never Let Me Go,” which received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Fest, will be released theatrically by Fox Searchlight on September 15.
Romanek (his only previous feature is the interesting though severely flawed “One Hour Photo,” starring Robin Williams) is sometimes compared to David Fincher, because they both came to making films through directing dazzling art and rock videos and conceptually interesting advertising art. 
But Fincher’s talent (and track record) are far superior to Romanek’s.  If Fincher has found his métier, Romanek still seems lost.  Almost every frame of the film is ravishing and beautiful to behold, but it is decorous rather than sustained or artful. Romanek is strongly aided by the painterly eye of the  cinematographer Adam Kimmel and production designer Mark Digby’s evocative production design.
Problem is, the images have no pull or reach of their own. The movie is fussy and embalmed, lacking anything resembling realistic or honest emotional interaction. That, of course, was the design of Ishiguro, the Japanese-born, British writer whose best known previous work was “The Remains of the Day.” The gifted novelist turned screenwriter, who did the adaptation is Alex Garland, an often brilliant writer on his own terms (“The Beach,” Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”),  
It is a difficult movie to write about on the level of plot, because the daring and reach of the novel was the subtle and intricate way the dramatic revelations intermingled with the bravura mix of science fiction and Orwellian-inflected social commentary about a dystopian world that is permanently strange and off-putting in its social engineering and political implications. 
Ishiguro appears largely indebted to George Orwell and Franz Kafka (the characters are addressed as “Kathy H.,“ for instance.) The opening credits lay out the slightly strange and sinister backdrop: scientific breakthroughs in 1952 have largely eradicated medical ills and, as a result, life expectancy now averages in the three-figures.
The movie’s significant structural problems have less to do with plot than with characterization, and a baroque stylization that is alternately too severe and withholding.
The tale centers on a holy trinity of outsiders, young, industrious people with their own innate curiosity and tenderness, who are eager to understand their place in the world. The adaptation is very faithful. Like the novel, the film is rendered in three sections and is narrated, largely in flashback, by the 28-year-old Kathy (Carey Mulligan), recounting her youth and early adulthood and her developing friendship with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth. 
The story unfolds over three time frames, moving from 1978 to 1994. The opening section, titled “Hailsham,” refers to the somewhat mysterious boarding school set in an austere, almost medieval English countryside where the three young friends–open, curious, bearing their own impulsive ideas, establish an early rapport. 
Overseen by a demanding and stern headmistress (Charlotte Rampling), the school’s rigorous social order. Tommy, in particular, introverted and withdrawn, is mercilessly picked up and bullied and that yields a certain tenderness and empathy from the two women. It is also a place of strange inconsistencies and contradictions. The school is apparently predicated on creativity and artistic expression though a primordial menace appears permanently suspended over the proceedings.
It is also the appearance of a sympathetic adult outsider, Miss Lucy (Mike Leigh regular Sally Hawkins, of “Happy-Go-Lucky”) who is the first to openly question the diabolical conformity of the children and raise concerns about the peculiar circumspection of the supposed learning institution. Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Pumell and Charlie Rowe play the younger versions of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, respectively. 
The middle section is called “Cottages,” and reflects the encroaching adulthood of the three characters and their tentative and strange commingling with the outside world. The interplay is altered significantly by the developing sexual relationship of Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly). The third section, called “Completion,” suggests the conclusion of the altered romantic triangle. The hints of violence and despair introduced at the start become much more prominent in the middle and concluding parts.
The movie is certainly something to watch. Romanek’s inspiration appears to be Robert Rossen’s final film, “Lilith,” shot by the great Eugen Schufftan, another work about madness and grief. The Rossen film was black and white, and the mood conjured by the disturbing and almost perverse use of off-white compositions created an extraordinary tension. 
In “Never Let Me Go,” the movie offers a range of stunning imagery, a ship marooned on the beach, the headlights of a car piercing the dusk as it moves down a lonely highway stretch, lyrical, linger shots of the camera following and pirouetting around its young stars.
But the movie’s inert and cold. Seemingly half of the dialogue is Mulligan’s voice over, and every idea and thought is bluntly italicized. For a movie about the divide of different realms of being, the movie is constantly grounded. The movie is often great to look at it, but it’s also visually monotonous–the dominant browns of the opening third feels increasingly punishing and claustrophobic. 
Worst of all is how Romanek deploys Rachel Portman’s insistent and far too obtrusive music; it pounds and distorts the imagery or emotional solitude and the rhythms are just wrong.
Outside of Mulligan and some of the secondary performers, the actors just feel stranded and unformed. Garfield and Knightly are somewhat miscast. The strongest two parts are Hawkins and the superb French actress Nathalie Richard, a Jacques Rivette regular, who playing a mysterious French art patron, is about the only one who injects her role with the necessary mystery and subtlety.
Everything else is grimace, pain and heartbreak. For a rumination on life and existence and what it means to be human, “Never Let Me Go” is antiseptic and too tightly wound to ever change gears or achieve some kind of lyrical flow. The magic dissipates.