Never Let Me Go (2010)
The most visually stunning Debbie Downer you’ll see this year.
Never Let Me Go is about three friends growing up together in a “special” British boarding school during an alternate history where science is lightyears ahead of us and has pervaded even the most innate aspects of life that once seemed impossible. As our trio grows up, they start to learn the ugly truths about how they fit into the grand scheme of things and what it is that makes them “special”, so they do their best to take advantage of the fate that’s befallen them while struggling to change their future.
It’s pretty hard to break down a synopsis for this movie without giving anything away or ruining the wonderfully cryptic ad campaign that went along with it, but the best I can give ya’ is that it’s like the grown-up, thoughtful, Michael Bay-less version of The Island. Then again, that’s a pretty unfortunate way to compare anything to anything even if there are some similiarities, so do what you will with that one, just know that it’s better than The Island.
So after seeing that this was based off “THE BEST NOVEL OF THE DECADE” according to some hotshot book critic up there on the poster, I did something I rarely do and actually read Kazuo Ishiguro’s source material beforehand. Crazy, I know. And while the novel was good, this is one of those rare situations where I actually wish I hadn’t read the book at all. It’s not a matter of the book being better than the movie or any of that noise since they end up mirroring each other quite religiously when it’s all said and done, it’s more about how the story is told. It all goes back to the idea that throughout the characters’ lives, they are continually “told and not told” about who they are, what they will become and why they exist. What you can guess about the plot already probably isn’t too far off from the reality of the situation, but it’s not so much about figuring it all out or seeing how many curveballs the script can throw at us, it’s instead very grounded in how it all affects the characters and how we as passive observers are just along for the ride.
Reading that last statement over, I probably couldn’t sound any more generic, but it really is an altogether different approach that works wonders for what it’s trying to achieve. The problem with reading the book was that I was already clued into what they would have to expect and how they would react in turn, so ended up feeling that much more distanced from them as a result. Granted, they’re experiences aren’t exactly the kind of thing anyone can relate to on a literal level either, but I’ll get back to that in a second.
But the most noteworthy thing about this movie’s existence aside from the cast, aside from the story and aside from the moral ambiguities that go along with it all is that it marks the return of director Mark Romanek who’s been on an eight-year long Hollywood hiatus since his sophomore effort, One Hour Photo, and, my lord, is it good to have the guy back. Without him on board, this thing would have been a 7, no doubt about it. It’s a compelling enough movie without a kickass director on board to capture it all, but Romanek is one of the few guys out there who can make the everyday look like The Ninth Wonder of the World. It was one shot in particular of a beached tugboat lying on its side in front of a purple and orange sunset that flat-out floored me, bumped this baby up to an 8 and created this sense of awe in me that I rarely get…well, ever.
So much of it probably goes back to the way everything is so naturally lit from beginning to end regardless of where the scene is taking place, but there are so many instances like this where Romanek takes something we’d walk by in passing without thinking twice and turns it into a god damn painting. I realize that just writing out the scene like this isn’t gonna make much of an impression, but seeing what this guy has to show us is honestly worth the price of admission alone. Also love the terrible familiarity of this dystopian England he’s created by having the characters live in a world that’s practically identical to the one that exists in our reality and just letting the backstory take care of the bigger details. Kinda makes the visuals stand out that much more as well.
But it’s not just eye candy here because the cast ain’t too shabby either. Keira Knightley’s good as the manipulative bitch of the group, Ruth, newcomer Andrew Garfield’s awfully damn good as the object of everyone’s affection, Tommy, but the real emotional weight comes courtesy of Carey Mulligan as our protagonist and narrator, Kathy H. Man, that girl has some presence going for her and she really knows a thing or two about the strength of subtlety. She was the best part of An Education and she’s clearly commands this movie, too. Girl’s going places.
Also has some great child actors as well. Always good to see great child actors.
Unfortunately, their characters are also somewhat difficult to empathize with since their circumstances are almost impossible to picture yourself in and their cold dynamic doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for emotions outside the range of “mope” and “cry”. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the tragedy when you have to watch them swim upstream their whole lives just in the hope that somewhere down the line the tide will finally change in their favor. As uncommon as this story is, there’s still so much raw humanity to be found in all of it, and that kind of universality seems to be harder and harder to come across these days.
Never Let Me Go is a quiet tearjerker that might not be everyone’s thing since not a whole lot actually happens outside of all the talking heads, but there’s something very appealing about how quiet this is and what it has to say about what it means to be human. Stellar direction, solid acting and a good script all come together to keep this from becoming a black hole of sci-fi boredom that might not get its due anytime soon but hopefully will somewhere down the line. If you can go in blind, keep it that way, but for the rest of us Ishiguro fans in the room, there’s still a lot here to appreciate.