Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2010

So it goes...

Gorgeous, sad and brutal, 'Never Let Me Go' is a piercing, elegiac stunner from Mark Romanek

Never Let Me Go
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell and Sally Hawkins
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go is so insulated, so deeply focused on its characters' small world, that its powerful effects tend to sneak up on us. Here is a film set in an alternate history reminiscent of dystopian futurism - a world in which massive advances in technology have allowed for medical breakthroughs - yet we see virtually nothing of the outside world.

Our discoveries about what exactly these medical breakthroughs entail, and what fate - state-sponsored predestination is more like it - has in store for the "special" children at Hailsham Academy come in whispers, rumors, hints, nods. As if even discussing such matters is taboo.

This is, of course, an accurate reflection of the characters' perspective. They know next to nothing of the world around them; after all, it has far more use for them than they do for it. But the things they and we begin to understand, and contemplate, might just be too painful for all parties if we were being hammered over the head with it. Largely on the strength of the way Romanek and writer Alex Garland chose to approach the material, they've crafted a rather stunning tone poem whose narrow internal frame of reference accomplishes what a more omniscient view never could.

This is all mood, no spectacle. And in an age when spectacle seems to be taking precedence over everything, and when too many filmmakers still don't seem to have any understanding of mood, this one is something to treasure.

There's a calm matter-of-factness about Never Let Me Go that makes its subject matter all the more disquieting, and its emotional currents all the more devastating. The film offers rare and troubling insights into human nature and the nature of the world at large, bringing up potent moral and ethical conundrums only to sorrowfully point out that such conundrums are and always will be secondary to the momentum of time and progress.

To paraphrase one character late in the film, things are the way they are, no matter the implications. We're much more content to ignore or rationalize.

Consider the film's more subtle touches, like the way outsiders treat the Hailsham students whenever they come across them - without a smile, without looking them in the eye, bashfully resisting any human connection to them, or even the temptation to think of them as human, but only as scientific creations built for the benefit of mankind. Couriers and deliverymen ignore them as best they can, ignore what they are and why they exist and all they would have to confront if they really took the time to think about it. Seeing a child's friendly, innocent expression being met with discomfort and fear is a rather shattering contrast, even if only we in the audience are aware of exactly why.

I don't want to suggest that the film is preachy or transparently allegorical, or that it's a "message" movie. It is none of those things; quite the opposite.

From a thematic standpoint, there's a certain sense of mild detachment that works in the film's favor, allowing Romanek to focus on the story and its revelations from a purely humanistic standpoint.

As much as anything, Never Let Me Go serves as a sort of three-tiered character study, our understanding of each character reliant on our understanding of their relationships with the other two. There's Kathy (Carey Mulligan as an adult, Izzy Meikle-Small as a child), her close friend/emotional adversary Ruth (Keira Knightley, Ella Purnell) and their mutual object of affection, Tommy (Andrew Garfield, Charlie Rowe). All three raised at Hailsham, all three set on a path that will end with them starting their "donations" - a cruelly ironic designation - sometime in their 20s. (There's a heartbreaking speech given by one of their teachers, played by Sally Hawkins, that lays out in plain detail the path the students' lives are on. The most stunning part of the scene? The children's collective reaction.)

Going back to that persistent feeling of insulation (even isolation), there's an undercurrent of nostalgia, of things being temporary, pervading even the film's earliest scenes. We realize that these are moments of childhood - scenes that in almost any other movie would be easygoing and joyful. Here, the feeling is mournful and solemn - illustrated in beautiful dusky hues by cinematographer Adam Kimmel.

Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and their classmates are, on one hand, almost in a constant state of arrested development. Their attachments to one another, and to their belongings, is passionate and possessive even well into young adulthood, the way we all were with our friends and our toys growing up. (That includes, in this case, the dingy old tape recording of the song from which the film gets its name - a song that holds particular emotional importance.)

On the other hand, they also seem far older and wiser than their years. As if their clocks are running much faster than everyone else's.

Which, basically, is true.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention the acting - namely that of Carey Mulligan. In my mind, she has firmly established herself as the best young actress working today, and has done so in just over a year's time.

After last year's effortlessly great performance in An Education (Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side over Mulligan? Really, Academy? Really?) and her strong showing in an otherwise thankless role in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and now with another graceful and heartbreaking performance in Never Let Me Go, Mulligan has quickly set herself apart from her peers. The acting is strong across the board - the child actors are impressive, as are Knightley and rising star Andrew Garfield, as well as the always-good Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling - but Mulligan is a godsend.

The film, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent novel of the same name, is evocative in much the same way as Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, another England-based dystopian drama. That might give you some idea of the kind of mood that carries the picture - as well as both the bleakness and palpable sense of urgency that define both. Ultimately, like Cuaron's masterpiece, Never Let Me Go is a poetic and soulful ode to humanity itself, even when that humanity is hanging by the thinnest of threads.

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