Never Let Me Go
When there’s no future, look to the past: ‘Never Let Me Go’ turns sci-fi into Merchant-Ivory
Has a movie contained more frowning than “Never Let Me Go’’? Even the smiles carry a hint of dejection. The bones in Keira Knightley’s face have always been capable of geometric angles. The geometry here is numbingly sad. The angles all point downward. Such is life for the girls and boys schooled at England’s Hailsham. The academy, which the movie introduces in the late 1970s, is a sort of sick joke on prep school. Its students are human clones being prepared for organ donation. They seem to know but can’t entirely grasp their fate. The headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) has instilled in her inorganic pupils a sense of altruistic nobility.
In the meantime, an attraction kicks up among three students and hangs over them into adulthood. As teenagers, Ruth (Knightley) claims Tommy (Andrew Garfield), the strange, slow stork of a young man whom Kathy (Carey Mulligan) truly loves. Years later, when Ruth and Tommy reenter Kathy’s life the dynamics of the relationships shift. All the reflection that occurs here turns what is an intricately dolorous five-year-old novel by the Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro into a concave mirror.
Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, who provides the film’s narration, make their way from one cold, gray, generically stately setting to the next (beaches, cottages, the beach again). They negotiate their current feelings with respect to their adolescent ones, and seeing them do so is like watching meek, innocent farm animals wait for slaughter. “The Silence of the Lambs’’ would have been a better title. The late central action, as it were, involves the pursuit of a deferral for Tommy’s surgical donation.
Ishiguro writes delicate novels of taciturnity. They’re almost completely interior, in the way that a lot of fiction is. With him, there’s almost no mood action, either. Like a lot of interior narrative fiction, that hasn’t deterred the movies’ attention. In Ishiguro’s case, his romantic suppression was ripe for an Ismail Merchant-James Ivory-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala production, which his “Remains of the Day’’ became in 1993. They were made for each other: Both parties shared a determination to keep the stops in, and the stops tended to result in several hours in a stuffy museum.
The director of “Never Let Me Go’’ is Mark Romanek, who would appear to be the opposite of Merchant-Ivory. Romanek is an American whose many music videos — he did Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream ’’ — reveal a stylist with an exceptional eye for bodies, color, close-ups, lighting, space, and atmosphere. Amazingly, “Never Let Me Go’’ could have been assembled from the Merchant-Ivory kit. It’s stale with suppressed anguish.
Working from an attenuated script by the novelist Alex Garland, Romanek imbues his movie with a great deal of seriousness but not much life. This could be a consequence of the material — these clones are inexorably depressed. But it is also a problem of tastefulness. The movie extends its wistfulness without making a fuss of the suffering. Ishiguro gets away with this because he was writing from Kathy’s point of view. She’s what the book and film call a “carer,’’ which means she nurses pre- and post-op “donors.’’
The movie diffuses its perspective until it assumes the proportions of a love tragedy illustrated with images of loneliness (a rusty old beached tugboat) or one-way longing — Kathy flips through the pages of a dirty magazine. What she’s searching for should be poignant. Intellectually, I suppose it is. But the trouble with the movie is that Romanek isn’t much of an emotionalist. His previous film, “One-Hour Photo,’’ from 2005, generated most of its creepiness from its close-ups of a sadistic Robin Williams, not from any true psychological curiosity. Romanek’s filmmaking doesn’t seem quite as interested in the characters in “Never Let Me Go’’ as it is interested in how they look in the frame. Those interests don’t have to be exclusive, but they are here.
The licks of casual science fiction stir some hope. Ruth is told that her “original’’ has been sighted, and she and her friends head into town to get a look. What she finds is as anticlimactic for her as it is for us. This is material that needs a stronger vision or some recklessness to wake it up. Knightley seems the most eager for mischief, although Garfield, who works in a fraught variation on teen gawkiness, is the least predictable person in the cast. Mulligan, who, like Knightley, is 25, has appeared in over a dozen movies in the last five years. She’s peevish in most of them. Her smiles always seem to be making tears. None of the actors is completely at home in Romanek’s hushed climes.
The problem with stillness here is that it’s both the antithesis of youth and a signifier of wisdom. In the absence of youth and wisdom, the predominant inertia points up a discomfort with forward progression. The years in this movie do seem to pass, but the entire thrust travels backward. All anybody wants to talk about is the past. The handsome images often seem to match. The film feels like a J. Crew catalog from 1985.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.