Never Let Me Go
Reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Mark Romanek. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Nathalie Richard, Andrea Riseborough, Domhnall Gleeson, Lydia Wilson, Monica Dolan. Screenplay: Alex Garland (based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro).
Twitter Capsule: Gains of curtailed narration ceded to gutless music; moved me more than book but I've dwelled on tale longer
(Spoilerish possibilities throughout)

Photo © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go involves a return to Blindness cinema, a school of films that don't mar their world-famous literary sources as badly as detractors might expect or allege, and yet they never displace the sense that the movie is a gratuitous creation, having sacrified any stronger sense of its own imaginative nerve rather early in the production process. The whole premise of Never Let Me Go sort of repeats itself when you show up to see it, aware as you probably are that the movie inhabits a kind of secondary, clone-like existence in relation to its venerated source-text, wondering if it's got any soul of its own, taking pity on its overt dreams of grandness when most of what you can see are its built-in limitations. Which isn't to say that the film can't be good, and if we really want to belabor an analogy, Romanek's got some organs (tonal severity, preference for images over words) that Ishiguro's story and style could really stand to harvest. Strangely, Romanek often feels disarmed of exactly these capacities that might have made him a sturdy, sharp renderer of this story. One senses he's too saddened by the tale he is spinning to take a risk on a demanding image or a trip into a character's headspace that hasn't already been calligraphed in fairly anonymous narration.

This is as good a time as any to admit that I don't hold the novel Never Let Me Go in nearly the esteem that I am apparently meant to, and that I found Romanek's film somewhat more moving than the novel, even though the ratio of what it improves and what it dilutes or obscures seems about equal. I may only have been more affected this time because I've had longer to contemplate the tale. After all, there are more moments in Romanek's movie than in Ishiguro's book that flat don't work, like when young Izzy Meikle-Small abruptly ages into Carey Mulligan right before a key narrative transition, rather than after that lacuna, when a quantum leap might make more sense. Equally off-pitch are the expository flatness of nearly all of Sally Hawkins's scenes (an utterly unmysterious actress, and thus unhappily cast), and the scripting of the finale, when everyone decides it's time for some deep-fried Theme Speaking. Clear it all up for us, Carey! Tell us what we missed, even if we didn't miss it! An earlier episode regarding a cassette tape and another regarding a touchstone landscape with a bunch of windblown debris snagged on a barbed wire fence seem totally vestigial here, shorn of everything that gives them context in the novel, though maybe they work just fine if you aren't expecting a rounder treatment. Anyway, I'm not prepared to defend the over-extended meditations these same motifs elicit from Ishiguro. In general, the setup sequences in Hailsham have been proportionally minimized from the novel and the scenes in the lead characters' relative adulthood have been lengthened, no doubt to advance us quickly toward our marquee cast, but at some price of moving entirely too quickly through a romantic-triangle plot on which much comes to depend. It all feels very perfunctory, who's with whom, and on what terms, though I also recognize that Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach) want the film to feel short, even truncated, which in and of itself enriches the final passages with some poignancy.

Note, then, that neither in general nor in this specific case am I one to beat the Book Is Always Better drum. As docile and soft-sold as this film often feels, and it doesn't always, I would say it has made more pointed and aggressive choices about what to remove and what to emphasize, what to cloud and what to sharpen, than, say, Blindness or Atonement did. Viewers coming freshly to the material may be surprised to hear that the amount of voice-over, though perfectly generous and occasionally obtrusive, is actually quite diminished from the full-on blanketing of metacommentary that the book would lead one to expect. And can I get an amen for that! Ishiguro's text never seemed to resolve an essential stuckness between, on the one hand, approximating the obliviousness of children and young adults who do not know the purpose for which they have literally been grown and, on the other, the retrospective vantage of lead character Kathy H. (here, Carey Mulligan), who has lived through quite a bit and confronted the facts of her lot in life as directly as anyone could. Nonetheless, those adult experiences seem not to have imparted any deeper thoughts or richer insights, even though Kathy has obsessively returned to these same incidents for so many years. More jarringly, Kathy's brand of obsession bespeaks no passion, and is surfeited instead by the flat but compulsive repetitions of someone who's perfectly nice but in some vague way not okay, and from whom you can't wait to get away. Were Kathy H. reviewing Romanek's movie, I think she'd say

          Now is a good time to tell you about the cinematography. But before I tell you about the cinematography, I need to tell you about the wigs. Well, the hairstyles, most of which were wigs. At Hailsham, everyone wears a wig, because the film rushes to be clearer than the novel is that it's not set in the future but rather in a sort of alternate past, so the wigs are there to approximate the loose-locked 1970s. Though it's not the 1970s the audience lived through. No one lived through these 1970s, and it's hard to know why someone thought the heavy, dark, unflattering hugeness of Keira Knightley's wig would place the story in time. But sometimes people feel things, and you don't know why. They just do what they think they should do, and it's down to the rest of us to pick up the pieces. But I was speaking of the wigs. Andrew Garfield's is also a bit overwhelming, though maybe he's just grown his real hair out quite a bit. Until later, that is, when it's all shaved, but I can't tell you about that yet.

          For now, I want to stay with the wigs, but as I said, the wigs are just a way to get us to the cinematography. The cinematography is by Adam Kimmel, favoring softish shades of beige, dun, pink, and a certain grayish blue that's faded almost to white. So many softish colors. Some people might have found them too soft, especially because of what's revealed later, which I am coming to. Or maybe some viewers dislike the colors because they make the whole movie seem pearly and rubbed down. Polite, as Miss Emily would say. People feel different things. Yet it's not all polite, the cinematography, since Adam Kimmel still has the gift, even in all of these soft colors, of giving his light a freezing white tinge at the boundary where it meets his characters' bodies. He did the same thing in Capote, even though in Capote he was working in a much darker, bleaker palette of colors, and generally sharper lenses. Very severe. But here, as I say, he is working with softer colors, yet sneaks a sense of chill into the images, which isn't always beautiful, and at other times is too beautiful. He's helpless to do anything with Keira's wigs, which refuse all light, or with Carey Mulligan's wig, which seems to be made of raffia that got wet and now has mostly dried, and emits a yellow light of its own. But the cinematography is okay, much better than the wigs. But neither of these measures up to the acting. What I'll need to do next is tell you about the acting, but before we get to that, you will need to know something about the score.

As it happens (surprise!), I agree with everything Kathy H. just said, but she congenitally tells too much about what she's already said or is about to say, or about the fact that she is saying these things at all. That Garland and Romanek clearly have no patience for Kathy's dull but maddening mannerisms on the page is a greater relief than I can say, helping, too, to avoid some of Ishiguro's laboriously "subtle" ideas: for instance, that people whose life prospects have been curtailed as sharply as this have a way of poring relentlessly over minutiae, and that they forge bonds with each other, endure splits, and relish reconciliations that are all more or less arbitrary. These types of people—who might, incidentally, be all of us—also tend to fetishize pet objects that, if observed even vaguely askance, seem awfully close to hollow detritus. Garland and Romanek have not found it in them to excise all of these banal observations, and so we still get treated to a weirdly freestanding scene of empty commodity fetishism among the tots, and another scene that is clearly intended to silence the reader/viewer from wondering "Why don't they all just bolt," via an unpersuasive invocation of the controlling powers of fear and rumor. Even though it's true that, in life, people submit to capricious and even destructive protocols more often than they rise up against them, this simply doesn't work as a dramatic device: it's too obviously there to seal up a major vulnerability in the story's conception, and the child actors all seem so directed, though not necessarily well directed, and so self-consciously precocious (that is, more like child actors than like children) that they aren't well prepared to convey total, unquestioning naïveté about things that adults tell them.

But neither the successes nor the shortcomings of Never Let Me Go are often down to the actors, which is peculiar, since the relations among their characters, the metaphysical unease they all share, and the fantasies and pessimisms they exchange ought to give them lots to work with. In truth, the cast is actually pretty good, insofar as we are cued to notice them. Knightley is fine, though she sometimes gets boxed into projecting a competitive, even sinister affect that doesn't scan all that well, because the scenes that might have fleshed out the vicissitudes of Kathy and Ruth's volatile friendship have all been shortened, where they haven't been cut altogether. Mulligan and Garfield fare somewhat better, despite all the scenes where they have to play the same basic conflicts: her general air of knowing vs. his general air of stupefaction, her adoration of someone she also pities, his fragililty and fondness for someone whose help he feels he needs. In more than one scene, they seem to improvise or to fall back on shared gifts for emotional quick-change, as though Romanek has rather loosely instructed them, "Be moved by each other!" They keep finding ways to comply, even if we tend to feel more interest in Mulligan and Garfield, sensitive and resourceful stars on the rise, than we do in Kathy or Tommy. Meanwhile, the loudly buzzed Andrea Riseborough and the Tony-nominated Domhnall Gleeson, so good on Broadway in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, are reduced to little more than a single scene to play another couple in circumstances similar to our central trio's. And yet, they are so vivid in this one scene as to imply that a bit of role-swapping with the above-the-title cast might have significantly amplified the emotional range and richness of Never Let Me Go. Charlotte Rampling does what comes naturally to being Charlotte Rampling, though she throws some subtle physical tremors into her final scene (aging? illness?) that nicely call into question her character's precise investment in the conversation she is currently having, as well as the larger riddle of what she involved herself in for so much of her life, and why she might have done it, idealistically or otherwise.

Let the record show, this is probably Mulligan's and Garfield's best scene as well, and yet you still don't leave the cinema thinking about the deft acting or the stirring characters you have just observed. What is moving about Never Let Me Go and what is stilted, incomplete, or otherwise unsatisfactory about it almost all springs from the givens of the plot. Romanek and his accomplices have found no way, in sound or imagery or structure, to anchor the audience's experience within the details of what's in the film; we stay rooted instead in the frustratingly vague penumbra of implication surrounding what's just out of frame, and which governs what we do see. I have read criticisms that Romanek has settled on too middlebrow and dainty a style for a screenplay that demands a rougher approach. I don't disagree, insofar as there are a lot more buttered-up establishing shots and undermotivated cuts to plaintive close-up than you might expect from the man responsible for the unnerving collage of the "Closer" video, or the elegant texture and mood of "Got Til It's Gone", or the haunting blend of empathy and objectification in Fiona Apple's "Criminal" clip, much less the emotional wallop of plaintive, crystalline, confessional montage he supplied to Johnny Cash's take on "Hurt". Based on those and other music videos and, for different reasons, on the aggressively heightened brightness of One Hour Photo, one might have suspected a Romanek approach to Never Let Me Go that would have called the main characters' humanity a little more riskily into question and yet still unveiled a sense of their soulfulness in unexpectd ways. Failing that, one at least would have assumed that he'd let his image-making carry more of the film than, in fact, it does. He does at least manage a compressed but upsetting and nearly wordless scene of organ donation that imparts a stark, bloody urgency to the characters' dilemmas. This sense of stakes, for me, had gone missing from most of the movie and even more so from most of the book. The sudden cut and the sense of chilly finality at the film's end—amplified, too, by a "for whom the bell tolls" detail in Kathy's epilogue narration that I'm pretty sure Ishiguro didn't include, though I might be wrong—evince a directorial hand that has planned all along to make us catch our breath with the suddenness of mortality.

Ultimately, that strategy works, and it's enough to make Never Let Me Go mildly bracing, sending you out of the theater thinking more about the poignant aspects of this flawed and limited film than about the gaps and slips and structural errata. Honestly, I found it remarkable that Romanek could generate such a melancholy response at the finale, in a way that didn't shame me for feeling so manipulated, despite ladling the concluding sequence with telltale instances of what might be the movie's three most palpable shortcomings: flat and obvious dialogue (in this case narration), lapses into photography that feels sedately beautiful for its own sake, and a gloopy, keening score by Rachel Portman that suggests a lack of confidence in other facets of the filmmaking to connect emotionally with the audience. Literally, almost every scene where Portman's score crescendoes struck me as a scene that would have improved with an absence of music, much less an absence of that music. That Romanek, given his eclectic range and frequently sophisticated tastes as a music video director, should betray such insecure and pedestrian sentimentalism in his sonic relation to this material is an even bigger enigma to me than the creeping but less pervasive feeling of visual conservatism.

But then, I had rather the same feeling about Ishiguro: that something about this tale was not only throwing him off his game but luring him to embrace tactics and avert modulation in ways I never see him do in his other books. It's not just that I liked it less but that, in key ways, he felt like a different writer, as Romanek here feels like a different filmmaker than he does elsewhere. Something different than "chameleonic" range is at issue. Tear-stained nostalgia in the guise of emotional "repression" is hardly unfamiliar from the writer of The Remains of the Day, but I really don't mind being asked to cry, any more than I mind being asked to laugh or prompted to gasp, and Remains, however awkward in parts of its historical plot, never fails to "get" me, or to feel textured and thought-out. My problem with Never Let Me Go is that Ishiguro seems so overwhelmed by the devastating precepts of the premise he's worked out for it that he either didn't notice or didn't mind that the writing was repetitive and flat, perspectivally and psychologically inconsistent, and somewhat proud of obliquities that don't always serve the story. First novelist and now filmmaker strike me as losing their bearings or maybe just their faith in the ambitious, nuanced craftsmanship they have exibited so many other times. Critics like those of Time Magazine, who named Never Let Me Go the best novel of the last decade, also seem transported and dare I say snowed by a work that, for me, never resolves a tremendous gap between the devastating scenario and the cloudy, jerky, weirdly under-populated, even aloof communication of that scenario. The premise primes you for a catharis that the formal approaches and the characterizations in each medium just don't deliver.

But as I say, I was moved in this instance, and the movie has lingered, whereas the book was disappointingly easy to put down and put away. Sometimes the things that guide your response to a film feel so elementary that it's almost embarrassing to admit them. I admit, though, that actually seeing roomfuls of characters and knowing that they are being farmed for their raw materials, that all of them will be dead well before they're the age I am now, did exert some claim on my feelings that mental projection from the written text did not entail, either because of the nature of reading or because Kathy's particular vantage interfered too thickly and maladroitly with my ability to attach to anyone else. During that late scene among Mulligan, Garfield, and Rampling that I mentioned before (a scene that also features Nathalie Richard, unrecognizable as Maggie Cheung's disheveled idolator in Irma Vep), it also occurred to me for the first time that the young people and, indeed, the audience have even more precious ideals pulled out from under us than I had considered. What if (spoiler) the cold truth delivered to Kathy and Tommy here isn't just that the "completion" of these clones can't ever be deferred, that even their professions of soul and of love offer no workable grounds for relieving them of the duty that has fostered their very existence? What if the co-extensive truth is that sensation of love itself, and the idea of anyone's possessing a soul, is a false affidavit we all try to sign for something that may not exist, to ease the horror of having no date with anything except with death? It's not a new idea, and maybe the movie of Never Let Me Go had fumbled its expression of credible ardor between Kathy and Tommy so badly that I was ironically primed to see their climactic errand as based not just on a false hope but on an entirely false foundation, maybe even one that they know to be half-hearted. But the story finally emitted something it had not previously emitted in either form: it gave me a real chill, by planting an idea that I didn't expect, and making it even worse than the ones I had imagined up to that point, before the literal truths of Hailsham start to be unveiled.

This doesn't make Never Let Me Go a well-oiled movie, and my humbled reaction to its closing scenes could say more about my own preoccupations in that moment than about anything I could confidently cite as a well-wrought effect of the filmmaking. Neither Ishiguro nor Romanek has clarified to my satisfaction how much the inner life of our main characters resembles that of a "regular person," or whether the carefully selective and manicured education they receive at academies like Hailsham make them fundamentally less aware, less sensitive, more superstitious, less self-reflective. I'm surprised by how much elective power Kathy, at least, seems to have over her circumstances, deciding for melodramatic but still self-determined reasons that it's time to be moved to the Cottages, and similarly deciding when it's time to apply for work as a Carer, despite so much else in these characters' lives seeming totally outside their power to choose, or even their power to conceive. I really appreciated the two moments when Romanek briefly allowed a snap of humor, gently but at the clones' expense: once in a restaurant booth, once outside an office window. He seemed capable in those moments of thinking about his characters as more than abstract entitites to be pitied or mourned. There's too little else in the movie that entertains the characters or the scenario from unexpected angles. Still, it isn't an empty movie, or a dull one: in rare moments where it pushes, or in others where it backs so far away from taking any stands on its material that it leaves you room to sift through your own responses, Never Let Me Go manages some connection and earns a modicum, at least, of respect. Grade: C+

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
I'm actually a little torn on this one, because I expect Never Let Me Go would be a very difficult book to adapt, and in many ways a gutsy one to risk a movie on, given that most approaches would be found too docile or too morbidly sensational. The directorial challenge is especially huge, and I want to respect that even though I don't think Romanek rises to it very often. The hangups I've had with book and film have never failed to interest me as problems, and even though this film solves fewer of them than I think it means to, certainly a lot of movies make you feel less than this one does and give you less to think about. Then again, looking back at the unintentionally long review I just wrote, my first thought is, "All those paragraphs on this movie?" which is a pretty gut-level sign that I don't think Never Let Me Go is built to last. Maybe I'm just too tempted to rewrite the story into something that, from my perspective, takes bigger chances: drop Ruth entirely, don't lean on the sentimental device of a love triangle, give the characters more time and trouble sorting out their self-perceptions, evoke a surrounding world as more than a restaurant and a travel agency (with fewer than ten people in them, combined), allow some urgency to the needs of organ donation or the boons of the science involved. Are people really living to 100 now? We learn that in an opening title, but Rampling and Richard hardly look as though they're in the middle of life. What if the audience was allowed to be one of those people Rampling mentions who rue the clones' existence from an ethical standpoint but would still rather consign them to it than lose what they are gaining? Never Let Me Go seems more invested in making us feel sorry for its characters than really thinking about their fate, and why and how that fate has been implemented. In that way, it's hard to defend as more than a reasonably capable but evanescent vessel for inchoate sadness. All in the eye of the beholder, then, but this still feels to me like an intriguing, unusual, potentially very affecting premise that ought to be rewritten from top to bottom. Even in the short term, and despite some of the movie's wise choices, I suspect the novel will handily outlast the film with audiences. There's just too little keeping the movie alive as its own thing. (If the right set of theater artists got their hands on this material, though, I can still imagine great things. Romanek and Garland have reformed Never Let Me Go in some astute ways, but the stage is a great place to really radicalize a work and see how far it can travel from previous iterations and still hold up. That, I would like to see.)

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