REVIEW: Never Let Me Go Can't Get a Handle on Its Understated Source Material
For those viewers who haven't read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, and aren't expecting an elegantly understated, devastating allegory of the human condition, Never Let Me Go might work on its own terms, as a love story with a sci-fi twist. But, like last year's The Road, another loving adaptation of a contemporary classic, Never Let Me Go teases out the novel's central drama but neglects the mysteries at its margins -- the gathering clouds that actually produce the storm.
Adapting novels, especially great ones, is a fairly impossible task. Novels accumulate: time gathers in passed-through-pages on the left-hand side while the mass of what's-to-come waits on the right. Novels take and dictate time, scattering information throughout a narrative that can, through duration, come to resemble a lifetime. For the most part, screen adaptations have less time to play with, and necessarily have to condense, distill, and focus; they exchange a simulacra of pace for one of appearance. It's easy to make film (and a filmed adaptation) look like life, but harder to make it feel so.
There's a hidden truth at the heart of Ishiguro's book that only grows more mysterious over time. Gleaned but scarcely discussed, and when discussed not completely understood, it's a mystery that deepens as we settle into it: Questioning where these characters come from and what they'll become mirrors how we question our own lives, and the answers are just as inscrutable. The movie takes a different tack, providing an informational card before action even begins -- something about how a medical breakthrough has increased life expectancy, an advance attended by discomforting consequences.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan) first appears at a hospital viewing window, gazing at a man being prepped for surgery. Through voice-over the young woman speaks vaguely of her job as a "carer," and about the "donors" in her care, before flashing back to her youth at an English boarding school named Hailsham. There our sweet, sad-eyed protagonist meets Ruth, a raven-haired girl with a mean streak, and Tommy, whose temper tantrums obscure a soft heart. Kathy loves Tommy, Ruth comes between them, and a triangle snaps into place. While Ishiguro is more circumspect about this -- in the novel, narrator Kathy talks around her feelings for Tommy -- director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) commit to a story motivated by a love unrequited and deferred. The three grow up and away from Hailsham; they live as young adults (Ruth becomes a fierce Keira Knightley while Tommy becomes puppy-dog Andrew Garfield) in a cottage, where sex worsens tensions and resentments; then they move on to hospitals as "carers" and "donors," their strange fate forcing them to reckon with who truly loves whom.
What suspense remains -- outside the love triangle -- is stripped away at around the 25-minute mark. It's here, seemingly without prompt, that renegade instructor Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) gives her students the sad and lowdown. I won't be as cavalier. Suffice to say that within the alternate reality of the story, the kids of Hailsham aren't like the rest of us; they've been raised to serve the greater good, even as they harbor personal desires and aspirations. By laying out the premise so clearly, Garland and Romanek shift emphasis away from Ishiguro's haze of half-understood things and to the emotional toll of knowing, to the drama of denial and acceptance. Instead of naïve characters struggling to make sense of their prescribed lives, the screen versions of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are three of the gloomiest cats this side of Brontë.
Knightley has the least screen time of the three, and her Ruth never registers as much more than a self-serving menace. It's much too clear which romantic pairing we're supposed to prefer. Garfield is well cast as Tommy, his big boyish eyes and smear of a mouth bespeaking a creature incompletely drawn. With a contorted body silhouetted by a car's headlights, his primal scream at the film's conclusion becomes the film's most powerful effect (though Rachel Portman's ever-present score -- all telegraphed piano chords and wailing violins -- quickly dulls it). Mulligan is marvelous, and her tender, ambiguously quiet manner goes the furthest toward conveying the spirit of Ishiguro's novel. She gives Never Let Me Go what Anthony Hopkins gave James Ivory's Remains of the Day: a tentative, transfixing protagonist whose elusiveness only deepens her humanity.
That 1993 Ishiguro adaptation presents a useful point of comparison to Romanek's film. For all of its faithfulness -- almost every scene springs from the novel, as does much of the dialogue -- Never Let Me Go doesn't breathe the way Ivory's film does. It doesn't risk tedium so that it can sneak up on transcendence. As a storyteller Ivory, like Ishiguro, is willing to let revelations slide into view along with the banalities, so that we're never sure what's crucial. In Romanek's film, everything is crucial. It pieces together the most cinematic moments of the book -- Kathy transported by a '50s love song, an excursion to a beached boat, a climactic confrontation with Hailsham's headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) -- into something far too momentous for such a delicate yarn.
That said, Romanek, a vet best known for his award-winning music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Johnny Cash, keeps things visually restrained, occasionally using subtle focal alternations to establish unease but otherwise crafting a straightforward period piece, letting the narrative do the work of refracting reality. But as evidenced by a last-second, ham-fisted bid for existential meaning, that narrative has more than the problems of adaptation to answer for. With its intermittent voice-over and impatient march to completion, Never Let Me Go would drift from memory if it weren't for Mulligan's face of loss, hope, and aggrieved empathy -- a look that's hard to let go.