Never Let Me Go
Directed by Mark Romanek
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is an exquisitely tremulous novel about the meager consolations presented by art, love and memory in the face of ongoing loss and certain death—a mark more often hit, than hit well, when it comes to pedigreed studio indies anyway, so it's to screenwriter-executive producer Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek's credit that their adaptation is mostly literate and modulated enough to feel like something other than your money's worth of melancholy.
Ishiguro's premise is far-fetched in its presupposition that public sentiment would ever err on the side of cold-hearted scientific pragmatism, but it's useful, like many a sci-fi contrivance, as a fresh phrasing of primary existential questions, through vessels (not actually so) different from you and I. In this case, that's schoolmates Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), cultivated for a short life of organ donation (no spoiler tags necessary).
Scrapping Kathy's narration and reordering her weave of memories chronologically, save for an introductory close-up and voice-over, we begin in the late 70s, at the Hailsham school. There, a young version of the cast spends its time ''being creative, '' hoping to place their finger paintings in an exclusive gallery in the rumored outside world; that these hothouse flowers are ''special'' is declared by headmistress Charlotte Rampling (though troubled by teacher Sally Hawkins), and unanimously affirmed by the students, in slightly creepy-kid chorus. Romanek, best-known for big-budget music videos, keeps it tasteful, which partly means leaning on Rachel Portman's score throughout—he never quite gets out of montage mode in dramatizing the handful of incidents that stand in for Hailsham school days; for the elaborate private-school rituals, tracking bracelets on the wrists of the students make an effective visual shorthand (and reminder of this damp-spring, dry-autumn England's otherworldliness). But in getting so expediently to its adult cast, Never Let Me Go leaves underdeveloped the intimate mythology that ought to ballast the later chapters. As the triad grows apart in the 80s (at The Cottages, something like an unsupervised camp) and reunites while ''carer'' Kath tends to her sickly best friends, now estranged lovers, in hospital and dormitory rooms in the mid-90s, there's less accumulated history than there ought to be behind their increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out of, or at least an explanation for, their impending ''completion.''
Romanek and Garland do evoke the tug of the past in other ways, lingering plaintively on single pieces of used-up garbage and forgotten toys (elaborating a motif of Ishiguro's); mock-ups of the sub-Peggy Lee title song and a laugh-tracked American sitcom also trigger our own memories of cultural detritus (as does, perhaps, the naively long, lank hair the kids sport at the Cottages). And the well-cast leads make a sympathetic triad: Mulligan has a receptive, thoughtful face, gently serious when shot through a rain-streaked windshield, though Kathy seems more passive without her interior monologue—and, too, in her attraction to Tommy, played a bit spastic by Garfield, who seems to have some specific ideas about his character's origins. Best is Knightley, bossy as the self-fashioned queen bee of the group, even as her slouch and jutted-out underbite torpedo her poise, and foreshadow the fragility of her best-laid plans.
Opens September 15