class=”alignleft size-thumbnail wp-image-33010″ title=”never let me go poster” src=”https://www.heyuguys.com/images/2010/07/never-let-me-go-poster-220×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”220″ height=”150″ />Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go opens the 54th London Film Festival tonight and is a powerful and delicate film, which delivers its perfect blend of period drama and sci-fi ideas with heartbreaking success.
Perfectly translating the sparse, hopeless nature of its three main characters to the screen, Romanek’s adaptation is a confident, controlled and painfully beautiful film. There won’t be many dry eyes in Leicester Square tonight.
We begin at the end, with Carey Mulligan’s character looking back to her schooldays, trying to work her way through to her present situation, watching the man she loves smiling back at her from an operating table. We are given perfunctory information on screen about an unspecified medical breakthrough in 1952 and life expectancies soaring, and as the first tentative narrative steps are taken we come to realise that the story we are about to watch will not have a happy ending.
A year ago I saw Carey Mulligan on screen for the first time, now she returns to the London Film Festival to undergo an education of a different kind. She is Kathy H, our narrator and one part of the central trio completed by Andrew Garfield’s Tommy D. and Keira Knightley’s Ruth. Their shared childhood curiosity and hopeless tangle of love plays out against a vast, unspoken reality, alternate to our own, but close enough for us to understand it implicitly.
Transported to an isolated country manor, the serene and isolated Hailsham, we are given our first glance at a strict boarding school filled with happy, expectant children under the governance of Miss Emily (a magnetic Charlotte Rampling) and her fellow teachers. It is there Kathy, Ruth and Tommy take their places in the love triangle which will propel the emotional core of the film. Tommy gives a tape of songs (including a track called Never Let Me Go) to Kathy, who is clearly enraptured by the peek into the unknown adult world it gives her as well as the flourishing feelings she has for Tommy, and Romanek handles these subtle, tiny moments with an assured touch that ensure they linger throughout the film.
The casual daydreaming and emotional intensity of childhood is given a sinister edge as the films draws on, and we get our first indication of the awful truth these children are being kept from. Special mention must be made here of Isobel Meikle-Small, whose role as the young Kathy is astonishing, partly because of her uncanny emulation of Carey Mulligan but also because there is a complex curiosity in her aspect, so crucial in our engagement with the characters and the story.
Sally Hawkins’ brief but important role as the children’s teacher may act a little too obviously as a cipher for the audience but Hawkins and Romanek imbue her part in the unfolding story with a delicacy and humanity so crucial for us to understand what sort of world this is. She asks the questions we do, and delivers the devastating answers herself, and so we realise that this is not a story of escape or revolution, but of the tragic nature of fate.
Kathy’s curiosity and self restraint is overshadowed by Ruth’s confidence and despite the obvious affection Tommy has for Kathy it is Ruth he ends up with as their school days end and they move into the wider world, to prepare for their donations.
We hear words such as ‘carer’, ‘donation’ and ‘completion’ passed around casually at the school, and Romanek presents his world, as Ishiguro does in his book, as normal and gradually we begin to understand the weight of these words and see the variance, the divergence and finally the distinction between our own world and this brave, new one.
As the three travel beyond Hailsham’s boundaries the innocence becomes replaced with a desperation for discovery. Knowing their fate lies in organ donation, each of the characters search for something tangible, something meaningful in their existence. Rumours of a donation deferral for couples in love and searches for the people they are cloned from offer small hope and as we move through the film we experience and recoil from the inevitable end we are heading for.
Ishiguro’s restrained emotion, so acutely conveyed in Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of his previous work, The Remains of the Day, is present throughout, with Romanek’s film benefiting greatly from the performances of Mulligan and Garfield who convey so much without words. Mulligan and Knightley have pivotal scenes together and Mulligan’s ability to impart a wave of emotion in a single expression is a gift Romanek uses to its full potential. Likewise Andrew Garfield continues to impress with his ingenuous nature contrasting powerfully with Ruth’s growing cynicism and Kathy’s doleful acquiescence to their destiny.
A criticism I’ve heard a lot is – why do they not escape? When they realise that jumping the fence of their school will not result in gruesome death, why do they not simply vanish when they have many opportunities to do so? The bracelet tag they each wear, or the brief shot of the National Donor Programme CCTV camera offer us answers, and the indoctrination of their school life plays its part. These details populate this film and go so far to creating a textured, layered narrative which is served well by Alex Garland’s work on the script, never explaining or justifying the world, merely presenting it.
Heartbreaking and bleak, Never Let Me Go exists as a glance into a darker world, only a step away from our own, and with all the social and moral commentary inherent in a film with this subject matter it is the characters who are the heartbeat of the film; curious and carefree in the beginning, every step away from Hailsham takes them further into the shadows, and we find ourselves at the end emotionally drained, intellectually engaged and, appropriately enough, complete.