Fox // 2010 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // February 17th, 2011
"You have to know who you are, and what you are. It's the only way to lead decent lives."
It's been 8 years since legendary music video director Mark Romanek last helmed a feature, the film in question being the vastly overlooked One Hour Photo. I've been keenly awaiting Romanek's return to the cinematic game, and it now comes in the form of Never Let Me Go. An adaptation of a cherished book of the same name, Never Let Me Go is a complex and quiet film, more interested in ideas and emotions than anything remotely flashy. It's a solid piece of work, crafted with good instincts and groundbreaking honesty, but it perhaps lacks the weighty punch of the major 2011 awards contenders.
The film follows the lives of Kathy (Carey Mulligan, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Ruth (Keira Knightly, Atonement), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network). The trio grows up in the isolated boarding school of Hailsham, where Tommy and Kathy form a deep connection, only for Ruth to come and steal apart their relationship with her own romantic intentions. As they prepare to leave the school, they learn of their true purpose, each is a clone that will later have their organs harvested for medical purposes. Tommy and Ruth continue to date, whilst Kathy silently and mournfully looks on. Eventually Tommy and Ruth prepare to make their first "donations," Kathy taking on the role of "Carer," dedicating herself to looking after those being slowly dissected. As the years pass, the group grows apart, before finally reuniting just as both Tommy and Ruth are about to "complete."
Never Let Me Go is a marathon rather than a race. Romanek is careful to guide the film slowly, using the 104 minute runtime to fully form his characters. As a result, Never Let Me Go is a very emotionally resonant affair, primed with a brutally dour sense of resignation. Never Let Me Go isn't a feel-good watch, but it definitely unravels its various mysteries and developments with panache and detail. It may not have much in the way of laughs, but it's appreciatively mounted with insight and heart.
The potential science fiction contingent at the core of the movie's narrative is never more than a plot point; instead, Never Let Me Go seeks to explore the themes and feelings that dominate the human condition. As was the case with One Hour Photo, Romanek uses the idea of loneliness and desperation to drive the feature, surrounding this central aspect with a tragic love triangle. Those approaching the film simply expecting an arty version of The Island will be disappointed, but for those in search of a thoughtful and deeply saddening drama, it's a homerun. The performances are uniformly superb, each actor favoring a subtle and understated style. Mulligan is heartbreaking as Kathy, forming her performance with a relatable depression. Each of the central characters understands their eventual fates, all of the cast depicting this feeling of impending doom rather spectacularly. Garfield and Knightly are both excellent, the latter in particular, her sequences with Mulligan exuding both artificial friendship and very organic fear. The terror of being alone is vital to the characterization of both Kathy and Ruth, each actress never overselling this facet, instead utilizing it in silent psychological bursts to fascinating effect.
Of course as the character's hurdle towards their dreaded final purpose, the film can't help but question the ethics of genetic engineering. Romanek touches on it lightly throughout, but one scene in particular toward the film's end addresses it with disturbing intimacy. I don't wish to spoil such powerful material, but viewers should be alert for a sequence in which Kathy and Tommy seek council with a figure from their past. It's an acting tour de force, and mesmerizingly distressing. However it's the doomed love at the heart of Never Let Me Go that dominates the film, and believe me, it's some of the most sensitively constructed tearjerker cinema of recent years.
The film perhaps can't match some of last year's other great output in terms of bombast or lasting impact; Never Let Me Go makes its point poignantly but doesn't linger in the memory as fiercely as something like Black Swan or The Social Network. It's an almost Shakespearian tale, told with genuine softness and affecting melancholy. Romanek withholds the visual tics that have made him such a leading player in the music industry, instead opting to bask the feature in a light glow and understated atmosphere. Romanek lets the story hold the audience's attention, using the cinematography only to slightly alter transitioning moods. The final revelation that Never Let Me Go unleashes is a perfect climax, the script debating if there's any difference between the deeply human protagonists and the people they've been designed to serve. After sitting through this grief-stricken denouement I think you'll find these conclusive lines very appropriate.
The DVD is fairly strong, the highlight being a 30 minute making of. It's filled with plenty of interviews and onset footage, entertaining and interesting. It's a fitting tribute to a curious movie. It's ample compensation for the lack of a commentary. Rounding out the package are slideshows focusing on the film's various artistic influences. It's not exactly exhilarating but it's certainly pretty to look at. They run for about 6 minutes in total.
Never Let Me Go is a very fine film, released on a healthy disc. It's recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R