Mark Romanek’s quasi-sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go straddles a fine line between creepy, dystopian thriller and understated drama—a line that often goes unexplored but is done deftly by the long-time music-video director.
The film, a 2010 Fox Searchlight release based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling novel of the same name, is playing this weekend at 5th Avenue Cinema.
From the opening shot, Romanek (One Hour Photo) sets the tone: “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952,” a block of text reads ominously as the film begins. What breakthrough? We don’t know, though it’s clear enough that something is thoroughly amiss.
The students at Hailsham, the British boarding school where the film begins, are disturbingly uniform. Their movements are monitored by metallic bracelets. And they are inundated with regressive, authoritarian stories of what happens to disobedient children.
Romanek and screenwriter/producer Alex Garland manage to slowly reveal the true state of things at Hailsham without stringing the viewer along or showing their hand too soon. The film creeps like a thriller but coaxes like a nuanced drama.
Hailsham, it turns out, is a school for clones. (I would say “spoiler alert!” but even the film’s official trailer spills the beans at the one-minute mark.) The students at Hailsham have been cloned from an “original”—the film is awash in such great euphemistic language—and they are created for the express purpose of organ donation for the British public. After three or four donations, the donors reach “completion,” which is a rather polite way of saying “death due to a complete absence of vital organs.” Most of the donors are dead by their mid to late 20s.
Never Let Me Go tells the story of three Hailsham students, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), perhaps the best-looking film triumvirate imaginable.
They are classmates, friends and occasionally lovers. The film introduces them as children in 1978 as their collective understanding of their inevitable role in life is cohering. As they age, they accept their plight with a doleful resignation, until a rumor begins spreading among the students that there is a possible “donation deferral,” a several-year extension for couples who can prove they are in love.
Mulligan (An Education, Shame) is the film’s narrator and a terrific leading lady. She can play an 18-year-old love-struck adolescent as smoothly as the wise-beyond-her-years caretaker she becomes. (Is now a good time to mention that Mulligan will be playing Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming The Great Gatsby?) Kathy is a “carer,” which means she has a front-row seat for the debilitating effects of donation on her friends Ruth and Tommy.
Mulligan radiates warmth as the adult Kathy. She is the film’s center and foundation. Her consistently strong work in the film de-emphasizes Knightley’s occasional over-acting. Knightley (Bend it Like Beckham, Love Actually) plays the fiery Ruth with panache but struggles with the more nuanced scenes.
In one of the film’s most intense moments, we learn that, like all clones, these three youths’ “originals” were the lowest of the low—beggars, tramps, prostitutes, etc.—and Knightley delivers her lines desperately, screaming, “We are modeled on trash! Look in the gutter. That’s where we came from.” It’s the most absurd moment in the film, not because of Knightley’s delivery but because of the implausibility of three humans as overwhelmingly attractive as Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley being found in any gutter. Where is this gutter? There’s one hell of an impressive gene pool down there.
Cinematographer Adam Kimmel’s camerawork is especially flattering to both the actors and the scenery in a muted, grey/beige/navy British-boarding-school kind of way. The movie frames its inhabitants with crisp, wide-angle shots, giving the plot room to breathe and keeping the actors’ movements always within the dreary context.
Never Let Me Go, now nearly two years old, is an interesting snapshot of two terrific young actors—Mulligan and Garfield (The Social Network and the upcoming Spider-man remake)—at the precipice of their meteoric rise. It’s also a melancholy film through and through, touching and heartrending in its depiction of doomed beauty.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 11, at 3 p.m.
Free for PSU students and faculty w/ID;
$2 for all other students and seniors;
$3 general admission.