The experience of watching Never Let Me Go is akin to reading an intimately written short story. Not necessarily the Kazuo Ishiguro novella on which it was based, but any artful piece of writing: it tells a story with a reigned-in scope (even if the story in question spans decades), and director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland use all of that space and time surrounding their quiet characters to bask in the details of the film's setting. These characters only have a limited amount of time to experience the world, and even if they're more wrapped up in their personal troubles, the film itself soaks up Adam Kimmel's beautiful cinematography like a sponge.
Through flashback, we are taken to Hailsham Academy, in the 1950's. It looks like a standard private school, but there are little details that hint at something more unusual: electronic devices on the wall checking each student off via nondescript wristbands, slightly unusual lessons about manners, and stories, sworn to be true, that keep the children from leaving the grounds for any reason. In this closed-off community, Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) both fall for the same boy, Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a love triangle that continues until they have grown into young adults (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, respectively), with Kathy getting the short end of the stick. She is faithful to her friends but full of frustration and conflict, unable or uninterested in pursuing someone else.
There is more to the story. I talked to someone who read the book, and their reaction was in the middle: knowing the rest was not necessarily a spoiler, but he seemed to think it would've been more interesting if I'd gone in with no idea where the movie was headed. I will hedge on the side of caution, and not reveal the deeper conflict in these people's lives, but it is clear relatively early on that they have a finite amount of time ahead of them, and they know it. In this world, regret becomes more powerful. Everyone has regrets, but for most people, life goes on. For these three children, life will not. After years apart, Kathy and Ruth meet up again, and Ruth confesses her guilt about taking Tommy away from Kathy. Stealing away childhood crushes is the kind of thing kids do, but thanks to their sheltered upbringing and limited lives, this hurtful but fairly innocent act has consumed Ruth whole.
The performances are all top-notch, although special praise has to be given to Isobel Meikle-Small's performance as the grade-school age Kathy. The kids are given tokens to use as money, and men cart in boxes of junk for the children to purchase, like a bizarre garage sale. Kathy doesn't buy anything, but Tommy buys her a cassette tape by a singer named Judy Bridgewater, and Kathy sits on her bed with her headphones and a pillow, eyes closed, letting the song and dreams of romance sweep over her. It is a rare, pure moment in a life filled with unhappiness, confusion, and emotional conflict, and Meikle-Small's look of bliss is genuine, conveyed with skill through body language rather than words. During the movie's first twenty or thirty minutes, she lays key emotional groundwork before handing the role off to Mulligan, and it's a relief that Mulligan is immensely talented, because in a lesser actor's hands, the change-over could easily have been a disappointment.
Although Never Let Me Go is both set in the past and mostly takes place out in the rural English countryside, Romanek (director of several stunning music videos and the creepy Robin Williams thriller One Hour Photo) and Kimmel bring a clinical, almost futuristic eye to the film. Everything seems so clean and organized, or maybe sterilized is a better word. Just as there must be for the characters, it feels like there's a wall preventing these people from really engaging with the world; although they wander through beautiful landscapes, they react to it like they're looking at a photograph and trying to imagine being there. The trio heads down to a beach and discovers a rusting boat, lying in the middle of the beach. Tommy is overjoyed, but it seems more like a cruel joke; the boat is a visual reminder of the characters' lack of freedom, and Never Let Me Go is a longing, wistful tragedy about all the life they'll never live.
The DVD, Video and Audio
A promo for Digital Copies and trailers for Conviction, Black Swan, and 127 Hours play before the main menu, while a section called "Sneak Peek" adds spots for Cyrus and "Fox 75th Anniversary". The original theatrical trailer for Never Let Me Go is also included.
Conclusion Mark Romanek's long-awaited second feature is a bleak, overwhelming tragedy, but also rich and artful. Never Let Me Go combines the director's elegant visuals and a host of excellent performances to fully realize a trio of characters living in a beautiful, expansive world they're unable to fully embrace. I picked it as my number one film of 2010, and for the strengths of the movie alone, I wholeheartedly award it the DVDTalk Collector's Series rating.