Beautiful looking film that crashes when the beautiful people arrive
Back in 2002 Mark Romanek boldly announced his arrival as a director with a flawed little masterpiece called One Hour Photo which found photo clerk Robin Williams forcibly and creepily inserting himself into another family’s precious moments. Eight years later he’s back and is unleashing a haunting piece of Oscar bait in Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name.
Uncompromising in its nihilism but imperfect in its execution, Romanek has the help of some hot young Hollywood actors to paint an alternate reality where sickness has been virtually eliminated and the lifespan significantly expanded because of one thing: children bred from birth to be organ donors for the rest of us. We’re never really told where they come from but they grow up in Hailsham, a boarding school ruled over by the strict Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling). They are forced to live up to hyper idealized standards of health and hygiene so that when they reach the prime of their lives they can be cut down and harvested for their internal organs, all in the name of keeping everybody else alive well past the 100 year mark. All those years have to come from somewhere, though. We are left to believe that the people who are benefiting from the donors sacrifice never give these inconvenient truths a thought or have since grown comfortable with it.
Our focus in the film is Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the soul of this heartbreaking story. It is through her eyes that we see the film, and the acceptance of her fate. But it’s getting there that proves to be more interesting as The first half of the film is more intellectually muscular and engrossing, and it’s during this time Kathy is in grade school and played by Isobel Meikle-Small. We follow the young ones around the idyllic Hailsham as they lead rather typical lives except for a few notable differences. In one pivotal scene one of the teachers (Sally Hawkins) breaks free and lays out the truth to her students in terms that they can understand. Cut to Miss Emily delivering a speech to the whole student body in which she announces that Miss Lucy has left the school. She then grabs the pulpit to give a morally repugnant speech in which she proclaims herself ahead of her time and lashes out against all those haters who would dare hold the human race back in the dark ages.
That chunk of the film works wonderfully but sadly gives way to a second half that lumber along as the children grow into their movie star bodies (Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield). Romanek couldn’t quite maintain my interest as he wrestled with a soggy live triangle between the three of them (Kathy mopes about as the other two hump well into the night) before letting us follow Kathy around as she embarks on her new career path working for the same organization that will soon murder her. That drags on for about 20 minutes too long before Ruth (Knightley) comes up with a brilliant idea that sets the final conflict in motion. She heard a rumor that some couples that can prove they are in love are given immunity from finishing their mission and she thinks the other two should pursue it. They gather their art and set out in search of somebody, anybody who can grant their wish. It’s all terribly sad because we see starkly the contrast between the joy associated with them thinking they have outsmarted death and the harsh reality we know they can’t outrun. Everything here feels heavy but not as heavy as it should, so what went wrong. Well not much and I certainly got the impression that everybody worked their asses off, they have nothing to be ashamed of though I feel like it could have been a smidge stronger. Perhaps trying to conquer a modern literary masterpiece was a mountain a tad too high for them.
Anti-snobs beware there is a hint of pretension that hangs over the entire production though I fully expected it going in. The cinematography is the real star of the show as everything has that lush, picturesque feel of a Merchant/Ivory piece though this actually has something on its mind. Romanek does seem to have gotten a little rusty with the passage of time. What really wounds him more than anything is his pacing in the second half that threatens to lull the audience to sleep with its long stretches of dryness and the fact that too much book is crammed into too few framed. He does have a worldview and it is almost Chomskian in its bleakness. The startling images of school aged children oblivious to the fact that they are dancing ever so close to their inevitable grave and Keira Knightley walking very, very slowly down a hospital corridor with the help of a walker skew our understanding of how the world naturally works and reinforces the idea that those of us with lesser means are just tiny cogs in a machine built to service those above us on the economic ladder.
Director: Mark Romanek Notable Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling Writer(s): Alex Garland (Based on the novel “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro)