Never Let Me Go is as austere as it is attractive, a painterly photographed quasi-sci-fi character study cocooned in a concept and patiently unraveled like the artful novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, The Saddest Music In The World) with a script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and directed by Mark Romanek. If you’re not familiar with Romanek, you can refer to any number of striking, occasionally disturbing music videos, over 40 to date, for artists like Nine Inch Nails (Closer, The Perfect Drug), the $7 million dollar Michael and Janet Jackson epic Scream, as well as dozens of commercials for Apple Computer, Nike, Acura, and a host of others. He also directed the 1996 film Static with Keith Gordon and Amanda Plummer. In 2002 he wrote and directed One Hour Photo with Robin Williams. Never Let Me Go is his third feature film and it shows as if a high school yearbook, advanced, aged, and enlivened by experience.
Never Let Me Go takes place in a world that is oddly familiar but just off axis. The landscape might be anywhere, though it is apparent the setting is not America and quietly suggests early twentieth century England. The subtly is refreshing, the pace slowed down to character level in place of elaborate set pieces and sprawling violence, obvious plot devices common to sci-fi action adventure films. Internal conflict is the ground work for social upheaval, not the external expression of it, perhaps best exemplified by the 2006 American film Children of Men co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Existing in this manufactured reality, the characters face their fate and react to it with genuine perplexity, sadness, and frustration but given no recourse ultimately accept their predetermined fate. Equal parts past, present and future, the overtones of a totalitarianism world never feels preachy while commenting directly on the implications of the central premise – genetic engineering taken to extreme measures. This is a film that explores the journey of self and how ethics and morality underscore the notion of mortality, morbidity, and identity. This is about the psychology of confinement in a world given to moments of unpretentious gentleness, a quiet intensity leveled by the sobriety of living and dying too soon.
The film is lovingly photographed by Adam Kimmel (Capote, Lars and the Real Girl) and uses every bit of the lush, green landscape and poignant earth tones of shorelines and English terrain to full effect. The story beings in a remote and castle like boarding school called Hailsham that is both prison and home to hundreds of children who are schooled, evidently incarcerated, and groomed for a very special purpose. In this dystopian world of the not so improbable exists a stylized early twentieth century that evolves closer to present day, always with an eye on the future where DNA research threatens to supplant all ethical and moral judgment as to the practice of cloning human beings. The story centers around three friends who maintain a peculiar though believable adolescent friendship which blossoms while coming to terms with their roles as living, breathing, feeling organ donors for the “originals” after which they were modeled. Unlike other films like Splice and Michael Bay’s The Island, Never Let Me Go is not so much about resistance as addressing mortality regardless of the way in which it is delivered.
The premise is exultingly renewed, invigorated by the vision of director Mark Romanek who like other auteur filmmakers, showed an interest in films at an early age. He experimented with 8mm and 16mm films before study lead him to direct connections with Stan Brakhage and the experimental avant-garde. You’ll find the same attention to detail here as Romanek’s moderately successful B-average movie One Hour Photo, only this time he uses more of the natural world to off set the very unnatural machinations of the story. Initial scenes with the children at the preparatory boarding school are eerie and uncomfortable. We know something is up by the use of carefully timed and subtle fragments, like memory – a theme that plays through the entirety of the film – where a tiny wrist passes before a harmless looking wall to be “checked in” by a scanner. Everything about this film is rooted a purposeful framework but the concept is never allowed to overshadow the individual and collective lives of the characters. In place of concept, or perhaps because of it, the writer and filmmaker allow the characters to grow up, to come to terms with their purpose, and ultimately “complete” – a term used to describe when a clone either dies from complications of the surgical removal of their organs or simply runs out of organs to give.
Unfortunately, Never Let Me Go did not reach the audience it so rightfully deserved. Released in a mere 232 theaters with a scant run of 13 weeks, the film did connect with critics who gave it an A-rating despite a limited theatrical run – such as the case with small, niche films about serious subjects and truthful expressions. It is regrettable that Never Let Me Go slipped silently into DVD distribution, given stars Keira Knightly (The Duchess, Pirates of The Caribbean) and Carey Mulligan (Wallstreet 2, Pride and Prejudice) are so transformed and deliver such exceptional performances as to be nearly unrecognizable from their larger, more mainstream projects. Andrew Garfield went on to gain much more attention in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and deservedly so; his performance is so restrained, as his character, that few actors could have been so confident with silence.
What is most lasting about this film is the clear choice to function solely within the boundaries of the characters’ lives, a chronicle of three children who are never truly allowed to become adults. However by facing their mortality they seem to live a lifetime twice over, once as children enamored with the bits and pieces from a far off world they will never know, and again as twenty-something’s on the other side of a short but no less realized sense of good, bad, and otherwise experiences. Romanek relishes the weight of silence in this film, the value of consequences of action and thought, choosing the space between to firmly route the film and allow us to connect to the central characters as they live, grow older, and ultimately succumb to mortality. Never Let Me Go feels far away and nearby, a chance to consider age as hardly worthy traipsing for living.