Oct 14, 2010

LFF 2010 review: Never Let Me Go [12A]

Dir: Mark Romanek
Your response to any film you watch will, obviously, be intensely personal. Even with that in mind, I think that my take on this year's LFF opener is a very specific one because of my own personal history. Never Let Me Go is, at its heart, a love story about three young people who grow up together; Kathy (Isobel Miekle-Small as a child and Carey Mulligan as an adult), Tommy (Charlie Rowe and Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Ella Purnell and Keira Knightley). What they don't, at least initially, know is that they are not considered human, rather they are clones, bred to provide humans, the normal members of society, with new organs as and when they may be needed. This, and Tommy and Ruth's status as 'donors' and Kathy's work as a 'carer', provides the backdrop to their love triangle.

I don't usually talk about personal things on this site, but it's hard to avoid here, because my own status as a transplantee is very much bound up with the feelings this film provoked in me. For me it posed complex moral questions about organ donation, and about whether I would participate in a society like that seen in Never Let Me Go (the concerned leftie in me says no, but the reality of that would mean that I'd have died some 18 years ago, so it's complex). That's likely to play very much more in the background for most audiences, but it does help create an uncomfortable undertone to the film, which proposes a society which could concievably be seen as either utopian or dystopian, depending which side of the divide you're on.

Quite apart from all that, Never Let Me Go is an excellent film. It has been a long wait for Mark Romanek's follow up to One Hour Photo (a wait which has taken in an aborted stint as director of The Wolfman) and, happily, what he's delivered is a big step on from his debut. Strong as Romanek's contribution is, he's well served by his team in all departments. By all accounts screenwriter Alex Garland (himself a novelist) has approached Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed source novel with great reverence, and the result is a literate screenplay, but one that is never pretentious or overly wordy. It's also very neatly structured, coming full circle in a way that, as the film opens, intrigues, and then as it closes moves you.

A film like Never Let Me Go, whatever else works or fails to work, is always going to stand or fall on its acting. Romanek has a mix of legends (Charlotte Rampling), stars (Knightley) and fast rising names (Mulligan, Garfield, Sally Hawkins) among his adult cast, and they all do, to slightly varying degrees, good work. Keira Knightley has the smallest role among the leads, she's a much maligned actress, and though she may give what amounts to the weakest performance among the main trio that's not to say she's bad. In fact she's very effective in many of her scenes, especially towards the end of the film, as she gives Ruth a convincing and sad world-weariness.

Knightley is, however, comfortably outacted by both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. The essential difference perhaps being that you can occasionally catch Knightley acting, which isn't true of her co-stars. Mulligan and Garfield are generally more understated performers, and that really works for this quiet, reflective, film. Mulligan is particularly outstanding though, speaking volumes about Kathy's feelings for Tommy, about her longing for connection in what will be a short life, with those big, sad, eyes of hers as much as she does with her dialogue.

What's perhaps most interesting in the film's casting is how closely the children playing the younger Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are matched to their adult counterparts. Ella Purnell is perhaps the closest; she looks exactly like a young Keira Knightley and, to the film's slight detriment, her acting, like Knightley's, is sometimes a touch over mannered. Again it's the actress playing Kathy who stands out, as young Isobel Miekle-Small proves a good match for Carey Mulligan.

In many ways it is the first act, in which the characters are at boarding school and there is a good deal of mystery about exactly what sinister purpose the school serves, that is the film's most interesting passage, As shocking and disturbing as it is when we discover the truth, the not knowing is, if anything, creepier. In this impressive first act, the film reminded me a little of the underseen Innocence. In the whole film there is only really one moment that feels contrived, otherwise Romanek, Garland and the actors build a disturbingly real feeling alternate reality (helped by the fact that we see it only through the very narrow prism of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth's experiences of it).

As director, Mark Romanek draws those strong performances from his actors (outside of the three main characters there are also good contributions from Sally Hawkins as a sympathetic teacher and from French actress Nathalie Richard). However, his biggest contribution is visual. The film's look is heavily designed; cold, clinical and distant, it suits the world that is being built here, a world in which emotion often seems discouraged and in adulthood reality for 'donors' and 'carers' is almost always within a medical setting. What's really impressive about Never Let Me Go is that while the visuals and the story have this chilly distance, the film itself doesn't. This is a film that you'll find it hard not to be affected by. The situations and characters may be alien, but the central story is commonplace, identifiable and genuinely moving. As the film closed, with what felt like a hard punch to the gut, I was on the verge of tears.

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