Very early on while watching Never Let Me Go I was struck with the realization that I must be watching an adaptation of a novel. There’s simply a certain quality that such adaptations have that original screenplays don’t. They’re marked by a certain stately elegance, a temporal broadness (for whatever reason, feature film screenplays tend to stay rooted in one time period), and, most of all, a feeling that the visuals are struggling to capture the original prose and say more about the characters than are possible through a camera lens. Other such films in the past decade that also had these qualities were Chocolat, The Hours, Atonement, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Perceptive readers might note all of these films were nominated for Oscars as well, and there’s a part of me that’s surprised Never Let Me Go wasn’t.
It turns out I was right, as the film was adapted from a popular novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s set in a dystopian alternate universe where people—clones, presumably—are born and bred to be organ donors. It begins in a closed-off school called Hailshom where Kathy (child: Izzy Meile-Small, adult: Carey Mulligan), Tommy (child: Charlie Rowe, adult: Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (child: Ella Purnell, adult: Keira Knightley) meet as children. Tommy is picked on for being bad at sports and art, but he’s soon befriended by Kathy and later becomes lovers with Ruth. The trio eventually move out to The Cottages and get their first taste of the outside world, but are forced to split up afterward. Both Ruth and Tommy begin their donor duties, while Kathy becomes a carer. When the three are reunited, Ruth encourages Kathy and Tommy to seek a deferral by stating they’re in love.
While the film has been labeled as a sci-fi romance, it’s certainly more romance (or perhaps melodrama) than sci-fi. The latter aspect is wholly confined to the alternate world setting, which is particularly strange as it begins in 1950 and moves to the 1980s in a world that’s only subtly different from our own. While perhaps more of a convention in literature, this makes for somewhat jarring cinema. I’m reminded of what Ebert said of Benjamin Button in that it was “a splendidly made film based on a profoundly mistaken premise… Everything comes after the beginning, and we all seem to share this awareness of the direction of time’s arrow… the film’s admirers speak of how deeply they were touched, what meditations it invoked. I felt instead: Life doesn’t work this way.”
It’s strange in a medium like film where manipulating time is one of its two essential aspects (the other being images) that temporal integrity would be so important. Not so much chronological linearity, but a respect for (in _Benjamin Button_’s case) how a life progresses, or (in the case of this film) how history already progressed. Perhaps it’s also about the integrity of images. We can imagine a world about a man who ages backwards or a world where people are grown to be donors in literature, but seeing them realized in concrete images adds an element of unrealism that negates any emotional or thematic impact that such a premise could make. Compounding the problem is an issue I alluded to above about film’s inability to dig into the psyches of characters the way literature can. Literature can make us forget about its unreal setting to focus on the character relationships and emotions, while such a setting is always present in film around the corners of the frame.
If the film is worth seeing it’s primarily for its cast of up-and-coming stars. Carey Mulligan gave a phenomenal performance in An Education a year ago, and Andrew Garfield was stellar in The Social Network, holding his own against Jessie Eisenberg’s whirlwind lead. Unfortunately, neither are as good here. Carey is well cast as the doe-eyed Kathy, but her character lacks the personality and substance of her An Education role. Much the same could be said for Andrew Garfield and his Tommy. Both are the victim of bland screenwriting more than guilty of bad acting. Keira Knightley is the most well established of the group, and she’s beginning to convince me she’s more than a pretty face. Here, she’s dressed-down for Ruth, playing the most interesting character with a wonderful ambiguity, always walking the line between a genuine friend, a mischievous pixie, and something more sinister.
One word that constantly comes to mind when I critique these adaptations is “professionalism”. They all exude a confidence from filmmakers who know how to do their jobs well. The film is handsomely but not ostentatiously shot by DP Adam Kimmel. Of course, the English countryside always makes good fodder for idyllic imagery, but there’s also a visual versatility, moving from muted colors to vivid sunsets, from cramped interiors to expansive exteriors, from lovely portraits to intriguing architecture. The costuming and makeup also deserve some praise, taking the characters from childhood, to adulthood, to their tragic conclusions. Director Mark Romanek, primarily known for the feature One Hour Photo and a string of music videos, stages the film with an assured pace and attentiveness.
But all the professionalism in the world can’t replace genuine inspiration, and that’s what’s lacking on this film. There’s never that moment that hooks us to the characters, never that moment that sells the love story that’s so crucial to carrying us through the emotions. The film certainly tries, and I think its failure is due to that temporal disconnect that occurs when films leap over time to transition from characters as kids to adults. Again, literature lacks this problem since our deeper and more intimate observation of the characters trump our imaginations of their physical appearance, while in film we can’t help but be aware of the startling juxtaposition of one character as a child, played by a child actor, being the same character as an adult, played by an adult actor.
If anything in the film is egregiously bad, it’s the moments where big emotional outbursts join with big orchestral music to pound us over the head. The success or failure of such melodrama always depends on whether or not the film has pulled you inside it. For those acting as more distant observers (myself) it always comes off as manipulative and trite. For those for whom the film succeeds at pulling in, then these may be some overwhelmingly powerful moments. All I would argue is that I think the film fails to do what it should in order to pull us in. If the characters were more 3-dimensional, if the acting was more inspired, if the direction was more enthusiastic, or if the film spent a bit more time developing these relationships and finding that moment of connection, then I think it could’ve been something excellent instead of “a splendidly made film” that made me go “life doesn’t work this way”.