Never Let Me Go (2010) ***1/2
Written by: Kazuo Ishiguro (novel) and Alex Garland (screenplay)
Produced by: Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Rated R for some sexuality and nudity
U.S. Release Date: September 15, 2010 (limited)
Chicago’s own Mark Romanek, prolific music video director and director of the film One Hour Photo, returns to work for the big screen with the new star-studded Never Let Me Go. Starring Oscar-nominees Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley along with soon-to-be massive superstar Andrew Garfield (he’s the new Spiderman), Never Let Me Go revolves around three tightly-knit friends who all went to boarding school and, now as young adults, must come to grips with some haunting truths from their upbringing. Can an “old pro” music video director make a successful transition into films with deep story or is Romanek’s latest creation nothing more than visually-pleasing fluff?
Based on the popular novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, this film follows Katie, Tommy, and Ruth, long-time friends who all grew up together in an old children’s boarding school called Hailshem. The children’s upbringings were very sheltered and regimented, as the students knew nothing of the outside world, or even the families they left behind. One day, a new Hailshem instructor named Ms. Lucy had a bout of conscience in front of a class and told the children that their sheltered upbringing was really a part of a medical program where the children would eventually become living vital organ donors for patients in need. After school, at age eighteen, the students would move into living arrangements all throughout “the country” — we’ll assume it’s England — and await their orders to begin donating.
Some patients donate their liver, some their eyes, but all donations are vital organs. This new program has extended the average life expectancy past 100 years. Most graduates of Hailshem, or institutes like it, do not live past a 4 donations, and some even “complete” after the first. As Katie, Tommy, and Ruth transition into their short adult lives of donating, their triangular relationship gets more complicated.
One major thing that sticks out from the marketing of this film is the lead power trio of actors: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. All three deliver fantastic performances as they play three friends with an odd three-way relationship affected by having a limited time on Earth.
Mark Romanek has been a staple in the music video industry for several decades now, working with such acts as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Jackson, Madonna, R.E.M., and more. As I mentioned earlier, One Hour Photo was his foray into full-length films, and it took a seven-year layover for the director to return to cinema. His music videos have always been visually strong, and Romanek continues the trend Never Let Me Go. Romanek’s rampant use of extreme depth of field contrast was jarring at times, but very successful other times. His use of exteriors and the beautiful English countryside is remarkable and could be used as a reason by itself to see this film.
The only glaring weakness of this film is its ambitious sprawling timeline. In a pithy 103 minutes, we see the main characters’ childhoods, young adult lives, and then are suddenly transported to a point in the future without really being told. Such a far-stretching timeline is difficult to convey to a film audience in such a short time. As the audience, we do not get the privilege of witnessing the in-between times, as the characters do, but we must fill in the gaps to get the emotional severity of some of the later scenes in the film. Such a task is bold to ask of a mass audience.
Overall, Mark Romanek achieved in pulling out great acting performances from his actors and created stunning visuals. The film commands a depth of thought that is truly rewarding. If you enjoyed the book, like these actors, or tend to relish in introspective journeys that make you question your own mortality, you may find a gem in Never Let Me Go.