Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in a shot that tonally typifies the entirety of Never Let Me Go

Mark Romanek’s adaptaton of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is a damp cinematic handkerchief. It aspires to devastating emotion, but like the constant English overcast throughout the film, it just hangs there ineffectually; neither threatening to storm nor promising the warm relief of sunshine. While the first half is carried along by a degree of low-level mystery as the vaguely science fiction-esque plot reveals itself, interest finally flickers out just as the scene is set and the emotional payoff is intended to begin.

Set in an alternate recent past where medical advancements have stretched the average human life span to 100 years, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are three teens growing up at a strange and strict English boarding school run by prim Charlotte Rampling. Hailsham is either a haven protecting the children from the outside world or a prison keeping them from it, depending on your perspective. Sally Hawkins plays a new teacher who believes the children at least deserve to know what they’re in for. She reveals a horrifying truth: that the children are being groomed for a very important role in society, but one that ensures they’ll never get to enjoy normal lives.

With the weight of their collective futures looming over them, Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield go about the business of growing up; every drama compressed and magnified by the nature of their circumstances. Soon enough, their triangle is split apart as Garfield and Knightley pair up, Mulligan pines for Garfield, and Knightley and Mulligan grow apart. There’s supposed to be an urgency to their strivings because of the unusual roles they have to play in society, but unfortunately the alternative doesn’t look much more appealing. The few glimpses we get of the “real” world are as drab and joyless as life at Hailsham.

Never Let Me Go develops a fragile but distinct emotional bubble of sadness and longing that is meant to be powerful and universal. If you can get inside that bubble early on, the film might deliver the emotional kick it promises. If you can’t, it’s a pointless, wan exercise in inarticulate mopery. I found it to be the latter.

Mulligan continues to act with the delicate confidence she showed in An Education, and Garfield delivers a terrific, off-kilter performance reminiscent of his great work in Boy A. They both more than make up for Knightley, who somehow seems out of place and never convinces you she’s a person instead of an actress, but they’re not enough to overcome the film’s slow pace or enliven a pallid demeanor already compounded by Rachel Portman’s timidly downbeat score.

Never Let Me Go isn’t a bad film and it even achieves a number of isolated instances of sad beauty – a scene near the end with Mulligan, Garfield and a woman from their past at Hailsham is particularly moving – but it never builds any kind of emotional momentum. Subtleness is preferable to heavy-handedness, but Romanek’s film is too slight. It never asserts itself or demands your attention and is therefore all-to-easily ignored.

Never Let Me Go. UK 2010. Directed by Mark Romanek. Screenplay by Alex Garland based upon the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cinematography by Adam Kimmel. Music score composed by Rachel Portman. Edited by Barney Pilling. Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Nathalie Richard, Sally Hawkins, Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson. 1 hour 43 minutes. MPAA rated R for some sexuality and nudity. 3 stars (out of 5)

2 Responses to “Never Let Me Go (2010)”

  1. Well-written, as always. I particularly like the wet hankie description. Can’t really predict if I’m going to fall for this one or not. Maybe? It seems divisive, yet I haven’t heard even its champions getting too worked up about it. Have I missed that?

  2. I’ve heard a couple of people who’ve soiled themselves over it. Poland used the “M” word. Some other fanboy type declared it the movie of the year.

    I think for those who get inside that bubble I talked about, it will be a moving experience.

    I’m inclined to think you might fall for it (and no offense to anyone who does), though since you’ve said you couldn’t get into the novel I might be wrong.

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