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For those unfamiliar with Kazuo Ishiguro’s source novel, much like the Hailsham School at the centre of this obscurely poignant love story, it’s not what it seems from the outside. Notably ignored this awards season, a fact that says more about the credibility of assorted statuettes rather than the success of this adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a love story in the classic tradition of star crossed lovers, but flecked with a sprinkle of stripped back Logan’s Run sci-fi.
We are told that “the students of Hailsham are special”, just how special is left to their morally conflicted Guardian to disclose during an impromptu life lesson; for these children are echoes of another life, perceived as soulless by their carers, they exist purely as organ donors for a “real person”, sacrificing their bodies before finally completing.
The three short lives that we observe are those of Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightly). We witness the fledgling relationship between Kathy and Tommy, one that is usurped by the scheming vindictiveness of youth embodied by Ruth and the ensuing regimented life that that the trio must live; through separations, reunions, and departures.
Never Let Me Go signals its intentions early as a narrative laced with pain and loss, from the moment Sally Hawkins holds her impromptu revelatory lecture, the film aches with the knowledge of the children’s fate, but although this is a thematically morose story, the overriding feeling is of a seize the day mentality that is truly inspirational right up to the tear stained epilogue.
Some will find the characters and performances alienating, but that’s the point, we too are looking at them as though they are cattle, as if knowing their ultimate fate dehumanises them in some way. But those that embrace the narrative conventions will be rewarded with a heartbreaking central turn from Mulligan in particular; an understated performance of delicate strength that allows us a window into her seemingly futile existence, and more importantly makes us care.
Garfield shines strongest during the key final act, but prior to that his impact is fleeting. Knightly comes and goes from the plot and unfortunately fumbles a couple of huge dramatic beats, but that is more to do with the condensed plot, a side-effect of any adapted screenplay and one which seems to effect Never Let Me Go quite a lot.
Director Romanek (One Hour Photo) uses a Mulligan voiceover in an attempt to make up for the information that the written word could have enlightened us with, but even then the film does feel rushed, with not enough time spent in the respective phases of their lives.
Where he does succeed is in making the film beautiful to look at, sure the metaphors aren’t subtle; a bird freely fluttering through the window, the longing stares out over the expansive ocean, and Mulligan focusing on the old woman she’ll never become, but its mise en scene of fading hues marries perfectly with these themes of mortality.
Bittersweet, but reflectively uplifting, Never Let Me Go continues the great start we’ve had in 2011.