Lives for Sale

Never Let Me Go is a time-trapped tragedy

In the special club of music video directors turned mainstream feature filmmakers, Mark Romanek is among the least visible. He hasn’t made a film since 2002’s creepy-but-minor Robin Williams vehicle One Hour Photo. Who would’ve thought, with only a handful of music videos made between then and now, that his latest feature, Never Let Me Go would be so good? A medical breakthrough in the early ’50s, which we learn of soon enough, has precipitated the need for special boarding schools that keep students regimented in health and behavior, and completely isolated from the outside world. Hailsham is a school located in the dreary English countryside, where we meet Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, from The Social Network and last year’s fantastic Red Riding trilogy). Without giving too much away, it’s important to mention that, although a title card informs us the average life expectancy exceeds 100, the students of Hailsham are destined for a short, controlled existence in service of “the greater good.” We watch Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as children at Hailsham, puzzled by the mysterious outside world and the looks of guilt and pity elicited by deliverymen and teachers (primarily the one played by the always wonderful Sally Hawkins). As adolescents, they gain a bit more freedom and a painful awareness of their destiny. Anger, malaise and hormones swell but are assumed to be particular to their own special societal status and not necessarily typical traits. For all three, adulthood seems to bring a calm but fragile acceptance of fate. Although the foundation of the story (based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro) is an inherently political bit of science fiction, Never Let Me Go keeps itself staunchly apolitical, with no denouncing or indicting. That’s the key to this film’s success and also what makes it so bleak. The idea of our heroes escaping the life laid out for them, or overcoming the authority that laid it out, isn’t so much as whispered. The most they hope for, and gingerly fight for, is a little extra time. And time is what Romanek is most interested in here. The always-too-few precious moments, the interminable distance between them and, in the case of these characters, the ache that accompanies having to live in the past tense. Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield are all exceptionally good here, but special attention should be paid to the young actors portraying the child versions: Izzy Meikle-Small as Kathy, Ella Purnell as Ruth and Charlie Rowe as Tommy. Their work grips us from the beginning, and these kids play out the intricacies of this love triangle just as impressively as their older counterparts. Never Let Me Go is depressing as hell — no one is going to argue with that. But it’s also very beautiful; it’s a sincere, totally unassuming movie that has you drawn in long before you realize it … perhaps in spite of yourself. Grade: A

posted at 09:49 am
on Wednesday, November 03rd, 2010

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