Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Movie Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go ****
Directed by:
Mark Romanek.
Written By: Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Starring: Carey Mulligan (Kathy), Andrew Garfield (Tommy), Keira Knightley (Ruth), Iosbel Meikle-Small (Young Kathy), Charlie Rowe (Young Tommy), Ella Purnell (Young Ruth), Charlotte Rampling (Miss Emily), Sally Hawkins (Miss Lucy), Kate Bowes Renna (Miss Geraldine), Hannah Sharp (Amanda), Nathalie Richard (Madame).

Spoiler Alert: Never Let Me Go takes great pains to conceal it’s secret, only doling out a little information at a time before it hits you with what is really going on. Personally, I do not know how to review the movie without discussing the reveal, so if you do not know the secret (which is at least hinted at, if not spoiled by the trailers) please come back and read the review after you have seen the movie.

Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go is a strange movie. It is a dystopian science fiction film, set in an alternate past that disguises itself an English period piece – something that Merchant Ivory would have made at their peak. Well some critics have found this combination – along with Romanek’s purposefully cold and detached style for the film – disconcerting, I think it is absolutely vital to making the film work. Romanek doesn’t milk tears out of his audience, but gets them anyway, because the story is so engaging, the characters so real. Those who complain that the characters don’t make a break for it have completely missed the point of the movie – which in my mind is one of the best of the year.

The film tells us that following WWII, there was a mass expansion in medical testing, and by 1967 life expectancy had surpassed 100 years. The movie picks up sometime in the 1970s in a seemingly idyllic English boarding school, where something is not quite right. The grounds are gorgeous, the children learn to read and paint and sing, and everything looks like it is right out of Goodbye Mr. Chips. But there are no parents around ever, and they are never mentioned. There seems to be an obsession with keeping the children healthy, and they are overly excited by the prospect of their market days, where they can trade in their tokens for the kind of crappy, broken, outdated toys that everyone else would have long gotten rid of. Plus there’s the issue of the strange boxes in every room that the children have to scan their wrists on every time they enter. All their art work is evaluated and the best pieces are taken away by a mysterious woman known only as madam, who when we see her seems exceedingly creeped out by these seemingly normal children. To the children, all of this is normal, but to those of us in the audience something is certainly wrong with this picture. (I will again add a SPOILER WARNING because while I have not revealed anything yet, the next paragraph will).

One of their teachers finally takes pity of the children of Hailsham, the school that seems so perfect, and tells them the truth. None of them will go to America, become actors or work in a supermarket. They were made for a specific purpose – that is to grow up and then be harvested of their organs so that they can be used to save the lives of real people. They will have short, meaningless lives by most people’s standards. The children have undoubtedly been told something like this in the past, but never put so bluntly. They do not rebel, but almost seem resigned to their fate. Somehow rebelling is unthinkable to them.

Three students emerge from this group. There is the thoughtful, pensive, shy Kathy (played as a youngster by Isobel Meikle Small and then as a teenager and adult by Carey Mulligan), the sweet but volatile Tommy (Charlie Rowe as a child, Andrew Garfield later on) and the scheming Ruth (Ella Purnell then Keira Knightley). It is really their story that is told in the three distinct acts. First is their idyllic life in Hailsham, then they are moved to something called the cottages when they turn 18, and the sexual triangle between the three of them becomes more complicated, and finally 10 years later when both Tommy and Ruth have become donors and know that their time is limited, and Kathy has become a “carer” – a future donor whose job until they are called is to help the current donors through their donations until they die.
It is really the performances that make the movie so effecting, so involving. Mulligan nails the part of Kathy perfectly – creating a woman, who like many characters who are close to death, spends her time looking backwards, not forward, trying to glean some meaning from her short life. Garfield is excellent as the confused Tommy – he knows what it is he wants, but is somehow too scared to truly reach for it. And finally Knightley gives one of her best performances as the seemingly selfish Ruth – who gradually reveals herself to be just another scared little girl – and that is the last thing she ever wanted to be.

To the critics who thought that the movie was too cold, I have to disagreed. It is certainly true that Romanek has taken his cue from Kubrick in his somewhat detached style, but it works for this movie better than any other choice would have. It gets the formal air of a place like Hailsham perfect, and as the movie progresses, so does his direction – the color palette shifts slightly in each section of the movie, becoming warmer by the end. The critics, who wanted these characters to rebel and go on the run, are essentially asking Romanek to remake Michael Bay’s The Island. There is something all the more profound about Never Let Me Go because the characters don’t run – they accept their fate and try to glean some meaning, however small, about their lives where they are basically used and discarded by society. The film is quite moving right up until its final shot. If you think it’s too cold, too clinical, too detached, that’s your right, but I don’t think any other style could have worked any better than this one does. Never Let Me Go is a movie about life and death, a moving statement on both disguised as a sci-fi movie, disguised as an English period piece. That Romanek has crafted a film that hits all of these notes makes Never Let Me Go a triumph.

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