Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew
Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Nathalie Richard,
RunTime: 1 hr 44 mins
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Rating: M18 (Some Sexual Scenes and Nudity)
Official Website: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/neverletmego/
Opening Day: 24 February 2011
NEVER LET ME GO is a poignant love story, adapted from Kazuo
Ishiguro’s bestselling, Booker Prize short listed novel
of the same name. As children, Ruth (Keira Knightley), Kathy
(Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), spend their
childhood at a seemingly idyllic English boarding school.
As they grow into young adults, they find that they have to
come to terms with the strength of the love they feel for
each other, while preparing themselves for the haunting reality
that awaits them.
It’s quite impossible to talk about this film meaningfully without revealing its premise, so if you would like to remain blissfully ignorant before you encounter this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, then stop reading right now. But if you trust our discretion, then we hope that the subsequent paragraphs will convince you of our need to reveal this crucial plot point, handled so delicately in Ishiguro’s novel and with the same nuance here by screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “The Beach”).
As those who have read Ishiguro’s 2005 novel will tell you, this is more- much, much more in fact- than just a romantic drama centred on the lives of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, three children raised from a young age at a place in the British countryside called Hailsham. In spite of the familiarity of the strict code of conduct and the stern starchy headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) typical of boarding schools of the era, you’ll sense that something is amiss from the start. “Keeping yourselves healthy is of paramount importance,” the headmistress tells her students repeatedly, though it’s clear that there’s more to her words than just concern.
But we are granted a brief reprieve from our doubts when we witness the intertwining romantic endeavours of our three characters- Kathy, also the narrator of the story, in love with Tommy, the sensitive and creative kid prone to temper tantrums, and her aggressively confident best friend, Ruth, who snatches Tommy away. Through their tangible and very human impulses and emotions, they lend the Dickensian setting some welcome humanity amidst its rituals and strictures.
It is a false sense of reassurance, one realises only later. What we are really seeing is a dystopian reality where Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are examples of carefully groomed clones bred for their organs to replace those of their Originals in the outside world, Hailsham but one of such boarding schools or breeding grounds around the country. Yes, this is an alternate reality where disease and dying have been defeated in the 1950s by medical breakthroughs of organ transplant and of course, human replication.
Ishiguro only reveals this midway through the book, but Garland chooses to drop hints of it right from the start and disclose it more fully twenty minutes into the film. This revelation colours everything you see, because it is inevitable for the viewer (as it is for the reader) to interpret what happens thereafter through a fatalistic lens brought about by a distinct awareness of the shortness and purpose of the characters’ lives. There are important ethical questions to be asked about cloning, but Garland takes Ishiguro’s lead in avoiding any straightforward discourse and casting these issues entirely within a human story.
Therein lies the ingenuity in Ishiguro’s storytelling, whose emphasis is on the fiction rather than the science, and whose approach Garland has wisely followed. By placing the story’s focus on Kathy, Tommy and Ruth and highlighting their very humanity through a poignant love story, the film maintains a constant tension for its viewer between recognising our protagonists as one of us- human in their actions, their thoughts, their feelings and finally their deeds- or as consumer products created for the betterment of our kind (if there even was such a distinction between us and them to begin with). This is a story which appeals instead to our heart, and offers us an original perspective with which to think about contemporary medical ethics.
It is also an emotionally devastating film to watch, particularly because our protagonists never so much as run away from their fates as accept it wholeheartedly, attempting to live and love as best as they can within their predetermined lifespan. Just like the book, the film unfolds in a three-part structure- beginning in the mid-1970s when Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are just teenagers at the Hailsham boarding school, progressing to the mid-1980s where they are sent to live in rural encampments known as “The Cottages” and finally to the mid-1990s where they complete their mission- and reserves its brawniest impact for the last act.
It is in the last third that our protagonists come to fully comprehend the implications of the intention for which their lives were created for, and that the viewer watches most helplessly as Ruth and Tommy’s lives slip away from them, one donation after another. Indeed, nothing quite describes the emotional wallop one will feel when a frailer Ruth realises the folly of her selfish ways and insists on making it right to Tommy and Kathy, or that when Kathy and Tommy confront their Hailsham headmistress for the first time after twenty years to appeal for a deferral by showing that they are human and truly love each other.
While director Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) exercises considerable restraint throughout the film, it is here that one fully appreciates his approach to the material. Rather than letting the finality of the events descend into melodrama, Romanek adopts a subdued and meditative tone which doesn’t so much as dim than reaffirm and underscore the significance of that foregone conclusion on each one of the characters. It speaks volumes especially when one contrasts their determination to hold on to every moment left in their lives and the callous manner with which we often treat human life today by wasting it away in hedonistic pleasure or suffocating it with hatred and violence.
If the plight of these characters is felt so keenly, it is also because Romanek has assembled a trio of fine young actors- Carey Mulligan as Kathy, Andrew Garfield as Tommy and Keira Knightley as Ruth. Again proving her mettle as one of cinema’s most striking talents today, Mulligan is heart wrenching in her passivity as the sensitive and thoughtful Kathy. Romanek preserves her character’s voice-overs in the book sparingly, but the true muscle in her performance lies in her ability to express Kathy’s disappointments and resignation so acutely. Not to be outdone, Garfield brings a sweet and sensitive aura to Tommy, while Knightley gives a moving portrayal of the seemingly manipulative Ruth simply yearning for love and companionship.
Their superb performances are complemented by Adam Kimmel’s introspective cinematography, carefully constructed to draw emphasis to the actors and their expressions, as well as to help the viewer appreciate the mood of each scene. So too Rachel Portman’s score, heavy on the strings to maintain a distinct but never overwrought melancholy. Of course, especially deserving of praise for this consistency are Romanek and Garland, who do a fantastic job keeping to the themes and the tone of Ishiguro’s book.
So this was never just a romantic drama of a love triangle between three children brought up in an English boarding school in the mid-1970s, and we hope that you’ll feel our revelation of the film’s premise was justified in the end. Appreciating the backdrop against which the intertwining love stories of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are cast elevates the film to a whole different level, and this adaptation of the Ishiguro modern-day masterpiece has in itself an understated beauty, wistful and elegiac, that is lovely, heartfelt and exceptionally moving. Yes, if you’ll forgive us the cliché, this is a movie of such emotional power that will stay with you and never quite lets go.
(Nothing less than an emotional tour de force, a masterful adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel that lives up to the brilliance of its source material)
Review by Gabriel Chong