Film review – Never Let Me Go (2010)

Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)
Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Early in Never Let Me Go, the seemingly privileged English boarding school children learn what it is that makes them different. It’s not a moment that is presented as a dramatic twist but as a matter-of-fact delivery of information. The children in the film learn about who they are in the same way that the audience and the readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel learn; through the non-sensationalised confirmation of a suspicion that we all strongly harboured but had hoped would not be true. The approach and early reveal of the concept that makes Never Let Me Go a sort of alternative-history film is one of the indications that it is not a science-fiction film but a deeply beautiful and melancholic drama. The concept is not even really used to facilitate the exploration of ‘what if?’ type issues that characterise more philosophical science-fiction texts. Instead, Never Let Me Go is about the sad love triangle between Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), three of the children who must face life from a very different perspective to the rest of us.

Ishiguro’s novel was told entirely from Kathy’s point-of-view and the prose reflected the fact that the events she was describing came from her memories. The film maintains this reflective approach but naturally some narrative details are omitted, others are condensed and others are made more explicit. With so much consideration for the way film functions as a visual art form that is distinctively different from literature, Never Let Me Go is an extremely impressive exercise in the adaptation of a novel that if merely reduced to its plot points would have not been terribly interesting cinema. Instead, the audience is left feeling the same sensations that were created by the novel and this makes the film an extremely successful adaptation. The atmosphere, tone and overall meaning of the novel are preserved through the film’s performances and visual style.

Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)
Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) helms the film and with the aid of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…) fleshes out Kathy, Tommy and Ruth on screen. In the novel Ishiguro beautifully captured the idea that the trio never truly emotionally developed as adults and that their limited world-view forever possessed a childlike quality. The film’s strategic use of dialogue and its strategic omission of dialogue maintains this childlike quality with the actors then also bringing so much poignancy to their roles. As the less sympathetic character Ruth, Knightley gets less opportunity to shine but certainly holds her own. However, Mulligan and Garfield are astonishingly good and provide several heart shattering moments in just a glance. The combination of childlike wonder, hopeful curiosity and sad realisations that the pair bring to Never Let Me Go is incredibly moving.

However, what truly makes Never Let Me Go such a wonderful adaptation and film in its own right, is the glorious visual style that captures the mood of gentle melancholy. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is an extraordinary accomplishment with its shots of the mist filled English landscape drenched in radiant light. In fact, the lighting and camera positioning throughout Never Let Me Go is close to perfect with its balance of warm light and foggy landscapes capturing the characters’ spark of life that bursts through the gloom of prewritten destiny. Rachel Portman’s score further emphasises the tender sorrow underpinning the film.

Never Let Me Go: Tommy (Andrew Garfield)
Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Never Let Me Go is a remarkable film that may frustrate audiences expecting a science-fiction story or some book lovers who like their adaptations direct and literal. However, its potentially niche appeal will likely only enhance the love that its admirers have for it because of the special and almost fragile quality that it possesses. Far from being a grand morality tale, Never Let Me Go is an impressionist work that takes its grim scenario to facilitate a beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Yeah but it omitted what for me is the KEY SCENE – the one where Madame surprises Kathy with the pillow – that made the book’s title so multilayered and evocative. The film has just turned it into a doomed love story.

    But I suppose you could argue that the adaptation process necessarily involves flattening a multifaceted text into a more linearly coherent one. And I do agree with you that the visual tone was just right.

  2. I think the importance of that scene was still expressed in the film in a way that best suited the adaptation process. Besides, the novel is so much more than that one scene. It’s a symbolic moment that is still felt throughout the film.

  3. I was out of town when we had advanced screenings over the weekend. Damn, it’s not out until the 31st. I’m really looking forward to it; has been on my waiting list for much of the year so far. I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t think I’ll find myself being disappointed by the adaptation. Excellent review Thomas!

  4. Great review. The cinematography did capture the mood of all that is delivered to a viewer perfectly – a lot of significant moments by the sea, I might start trying to get a better grasp of my own existence while wandering the beach at Morecambe.

    Nevertheless I still feel the flick suffered from the lead characters sorrowful acceptance of all that befell them. I felt the film lacked that human spirit quality which exists regardless of oppression/conditioning.

    In fact I’m going to suggest that if they’d had a mate who decided to try and escape the system I’d have rather seen that story… I mean we need more movies like The Island ;)

    Also, a lot of time was spent waiting for adult Tommy to get his scream on.

    Take it easy,

    MW. x

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