Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go reduces Kazuo Ishiguro's novel - among the most rightfully acclaimed of the last ten years - into a film so achingly wistful, gorgeous, and true that it's a shame it feels adapted from a short story. A delicate film to discuss but a difficult one to spoil, Never Let Me Go tells a concise and slippery story of resignation that attempts to bridge the gap between what we know of the human experience and the turbulence of actually enduring it. It's been eight years since Romanek's first feature - the calculated and contained thriller One Hour Photo - and the bearded music video auteur is itching to make up for lost time with a sophomore effort that tackles the only subject more abstract and far-reaching than disposable cameras: the human condition.
We're told two things from the start: The parallel universe Never Let Me Go inhabits experienced a vague and vaguely sinister medical breakthrough in the 1960s. Two: The students of Hailsham boarding school are special. As to what exactly those two facts have to do with one another makes for the cinematic anti-mystery of the year.
The answer - in the broadest sense - is revealed by the novel's Library of Congress cataloging information, all but announced by the trailer, and organically teased out in the film itself. We're introduced to Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy - the trio of Hailsham students whom we'll follow from their cloistered childhood in the 1970s, through their magical transformation into Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and
Adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, a compatriot novelist of Ishiguro's and a frequent Danny Boyle collaborator (he penned the likes of Sunshine and 28 Days Later), Never Let Me Go is tasked with believably presenting a dystopia that isn't. It may not be paradise, but it's not exactly Logan's Run, either. And as we watch the protagonists hit their teenage years, skittishly introduce themselves to the outside world, and tear into the universally awkward rhythms of their unavoidable love triangle, their passivity and disinterest in escaping becomes the film's beguiling core. So while Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are at peace with their place in the world, the audience is caught up hunting for details and rationale. The teens are busy forging the eminently human moments of love, betrayal, and regret that will spur their adult sentimentality, and the audience is focusing on what makes these characters so different from us rather than how those differences expose our similarities (this tricky dynamic is brilliantly epitomized by a moment in which Kathy & co. - colluding in a particularly pissy episode of teen angst - arrive home and casually check-in via a scan of the barcodes implanted in their hands).
To that end, Romanek has repurposed the bucolic British countryside into the stuff of realist science fiction, producing an England that looks stuck in a custody battle between the sun-kissed nostalgia of Atonement and the chilly chaos of Children of Men. The movie exists in a perpetual sunset (a less stringent Days of Heaven), and the golden hues of Romanek's shaky and intimate compositions - when combined with subtle period details - make it feel as though scenes are slipping into memory even as they flicker away on screen.
But because that sensation alone does such a great job of vividly capturing how painfully elusive time can be, the incredible economy of Garland's script amounts to overkill, effectively pushing the film to a pace that reduces its characters to wisps and fragments. Mulligan's Kathy is our way into the story, but she, Knightley, and Garfield are all essentially in supporting roles here both in function and screen time. All three do an exceptional job of infusing these characters with an energy and conviction capable of supporting their peculiar circumstances, and the kids who play their childhood counterparts are every bit as good (and bear a freakish resemblance to their respective adults, in addition to being proof that Romanek knows how to coax great performances out of his actors despite his music video background).
But we just don't see enough of them - of anyone. I don't mean to throw Garland under the bus, because - consulting closely with Ishiguro - he's done a remarkable job of distilling the author's unconventional text into a direct and thoroughly cinematic saga that remains taut despite spanning three decades. For a screenwriter, Never Let Me Go is a golden opportunity wrapped in a nightmare, and for the most part Garland makes it work. The script is an intricate ballet of informational leverage - Kathy and the gang know far more about their purpose than the audience does, but as their lives take them to the world beyond Hailsham, they're blinded to the sad ironies of their hopes and the flimsiness of their fictions, as obvious as the more abstract things are to us.
Garland nails the interplay between how one can easily acknowledge the finite truths of our world yet find it impossible to accept them, and that's no mean feat. But the film - for whatever reason - doesn't share my regard for the abstract victories of Garland's script. Instead, we get voiceover from Kathy at the critical moments, facile and moralistic narration that robs the film of a subtle power more befitting of a movie that plays like a sigh from a half-remembered dream. And while the characters are limited by their circumstances, they form the entirety of each others' worlds, and the film's pointed second act would have seriously benefited from allowing the audience a bit more time to know Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy as they know each other.
So while sporadically sublime, Never Let Me Go doesn't earn the theatrics of a third act that feels thin where it should be wrenching. What we're left with is a gorgeous but deeply frustrating film that regularly taps into the haunted tenderness so crucial to Ishiguro's writing, but at a scant and transitory 103 minutes Never Let Me Go doesn't take the time to have you in the first place.