Mark Romanek’s screen version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel set in an alternative fifties Britain could have misfired on so many fronts. The casting of Mulligan, Knightly and Garfield could have come off as pretty public school kids attempting to show their depth, the worthy nature of the story might have led to a melodramatic journey of self-discovery, and the wonderful vision of the tale might have got lost in translation. Instead what we get is a unique cross between a Village of the Damned style Sci-fi, crossed with a fine character driven drama, with chilling overtones.
Carey Mulligan as Kathy narrates the film as we follow the story of her, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly) as children trapped inside the confines of Hailsham boarding school, where it is later revealed by a teacher (Sally Hawkins) that the pupils there are destined when they reach adulthood to give a series of organ donations which will eventually kill them as a result. Things intensifier, when Tommy, and Ruth enter into a relationship, which is a blow for Kathy, as she and Tommy almost seemed certain to be partners. As teenagers the trio are rehoused on a farm, here they come into contact with others just like them, and discover that they are in fact modelled on clones, as well as the possibility of a referral system for people if they can prove that they are in love. When things become too much for Kathy, she applies to become a carer for donors, moving her away from her long time friends.
The repressed teenage angst and isolation is the cornerstone of what the film is built on, with a numb sense that instead of rebelling, the central characters are just resigned to their fate. The claustrophobic world is artfully created, with a range of earthy and watery visuals, and a breathy and cold environment. The three leads are all impressive, not least Knightly who carries a very brittle, icy and ultimately rageful Ruth, indeed she has the key role as Tommy and Kathy are both much more reserved, and less controversy characters. Along with Pride and Prejudice this is the most convincing Knightly performance to date, she is clearly an actress still slowly blossoming. Mulligan gives a tightly buttoned up, subtle turn as Kathy who suffers the most, her control is key in the closing scenes. If there is a weak link it might have been Andrew Garfield, although I am not sure if it was a case of him as Tommy being too one dimension, or that he is treated too much in places as a go between for the girls.
The most impressive aspect of Never Let Me Go is the slow burning pacing, the care and attention paid to each chapter of the story, the key scenes are properly weighted, the powerful langrage of the source is upheld and works perfectly on the screen, and the thriller elements sting in all the right places. If not for Romanek’s discipline, and vision, this might not have been half the film. One of the most draining, emotionally engaging, and thought provoking big screen experience in quite some time.
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
Runtime: 103 mins