NEVER LET ME GO
Review by Gordon Justesen
Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mark Romanek
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: February 1, 2011
“None of you will do anything except live the life that has already been set up for you...”
I don't think I've ever come across a film that I've wanted to review so badly, and yet is entirely difficult to do so without spoiling significant story details. Since most of what happens in Never Let Me Go is driven from a crucial story turn, the best advice I can possibly give to you is to stop reading, go watch the movie, and come back to the review. Not just because I don't want to spoil anything for you, but because this is quite simply one outstanding and extremely powerful film.
Now, onto the review...
A mesmerizing mixture of romance, tragedy, period piece and subtle science fiction, Never Let Me Go is certainly one of the most unique and deeply moving films I've seen in a very long time. Though I have yet to read the much acclaimed novel by Kazou Ishiguro, which has long been on my must read list, this screen adaptation very much plays like a novel itself. This won't stop me from wanting to read the book in the future, but in the meantime I'm thoroughly convinced that screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek have crafted an extremely faithful interpretation.
The story takes place in an alternate reality, and spans over several different time periods. We begin in 1978, in the remote boarding school known as Hailsham, where young children are raised and educated. They are cut off from the outside world, the details of which are given to them through the bits of information provided by the teaching staff. The students are also instructed to never venture beyond the fence that surrounds Hailsham, having been told that anyone who does is likely to end up dead.
We are introduced to three young students at the school; Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Ella Purnell). Kathy and Ruth are best friends, but Ruth is an insecure type who does whatever it takes to get what she wants. Because of this, she is the first to show a romantic interest in Tommy, despite the notion that he is much better suited for Kathy, who has feelings for him but keeps them hidden.
Eventually, they come to learn of their purpose and why they are closed off from the outside world. One of their teachers, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), reveals that all the students at Hailsham are “special” and are given one specific destiny in life. They are the product of a medical breakthrough (one in which life expectancy has been extended to 100 years) in that they are all genetically created clones whose internal organs will eventually be used for medical harvesting.
The story then leaps to 1987, with the students leaving Hailsham to now reside in cottages as young adults until their time has come to fulfill their destiny. The donor process consists of individual stages, based on what organ needed, over an extended period of time. Eventually, every donor will have to face the final stage, known as “completion”.
Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) continue to engage in romance while Kathy (Carey Mulligan) remains at their side, her feelings still buried under the surface. Ruth and Tommy have already entered the early stages of the donor process. Kathy, who hasn't yet been selected, has since joined the “carer” program, which allows even those awaiting the process to care for current donors.
Eventually, regret and free will play into the story. Ruth has a heartbreaking confession to Kathy about why she felt the need to steal Tommy from her. It's a scene that reminds you that Keira Knightley is a serious actress and more than just a pretty face.
And Tommy and Kathy, who come to the realization that they feel the same way about one another, come up with a way to extend their lives. If any two students felt they were truly in love and felt they well suited each other, and could prove so to the heads of the school, they would be granted a certain number of years to enjoy life together. They will still have to complete the donor process one day but since Kathy hasn't yet begun and Tommy is still able to get around, why not give it a shot?
This leads to another revelation which I won't dare spoil. It is at this moment when I realized this is one of the most heartbreaking stories I've ever experienced in any medium. The entire film is indeed a downer, but once it reaches the final frame don't be surprised if you need a few minutes to collect yourself, as I did.
This is Mark Romanek's first directorial effort since 2002's One Hour Photo, which was his first film gig and one of the best of that year. Romanek had already built a following for his outstanding work as a prolific music video director and was eager to see what he would churn out next as a filmmaker, having been completely mesmerized by his debut feature. And this film truly illustrates Romanek's passion for filmmaking, as well as the notion that he is a true admirer of Ishiguro's novel and thus wanted to make the most faithful adaptation possible.
The acting here is uniformly excellent. Carey Mulligan, who previously delivered a flat out wonderful breakthrough and oscar-nominated performance in An Education, is absolutely riveting here as Kathy, who is unquestionably the heart and soul of the movie. And this has been quite the year for Andrew Garfield, as this film came out around the same time as The Social Network. He's fantastic in both movies, though it's safe to say that his performance as Tommy allows him to unleash a more emotional performance, which is illustrated beautifully in a pivotal scene towards the end. It should also be mentioned that the child actors who play the main characters at a younger age are all outstanding as well!
It's most unfortunate that Never Let Me Go was completely shut out of this year's oscar race, because it was extremely deserving in a good number of categories, including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. It is a most exquisite piece of artistic cinema, and a must see for fans of both dramatic and science fiction storytelling. And Ishiguro himself has praised the film immensely, which is definitely saying something!
All in all, this is a first rate HD presentation from Fox. The early scenes at Hailsham seem to carry a slightly dimmer look to them when compared to the rest of the film, though that may have been an artistic intention. The scenery established in this film is captured gorgeously in the 1080p, which is more or less expected when the setting is the English countryside...even if it's an alternate reality. A sequence set on a luxurious seaside dock is a thing of stunning visual beauty, as only Blu-ray can provide. And the film's final moment with a character gazing into a sunset is rendered most effectively!
Though strictly a dialogue driven film, the DTS HD mix is nonetheless superb! Every bit of the dialogue is delivered through the channels tremendously well, and that's key for a film like this. Rachel Portman's elegant music score is also a definite highlight of the presentation. Several set pieces allow some very nice surround sound pick up as far as background noise and sounds within the environment are concerned. A well handled sound mix that enhances this powerful drama from beginning to end!
Included is a half hour documentary titled “The Secrets of Never Let Me Go”, which feature interviews from cast and crew members, as well as novelist Ishiguro. Also featured is a collection of On-Set Photography from Mark Romanek, as well as a gallery of the artwork created by Tommy in the movie and a graphics campaign for both the National Donor Programme and Hailsham.
The unique premise of Never Let Me Go and the people involved with it were what initially hooked me into wanting to see it. I never expected to experience one of the most emotionally gripping and heartbreaking films I'd ever seen. For a single film to be like that while dealing with so many effective themes, all with the use a subtle sci-fi backdrop is, in my book, something of a unique accomplishment. This is one of 2010's very best films, and it has motivated me to want to read the original novel!