Back in 2002, Robin Williams lobbed three dark performance hand grenades, the most powerful of which was One Hour Photo. What was so compelling about Photo was not only Williams’ ability to channel a character who was simultaneously repulsive, pitiable, and menacing (Anthony Perkins anyone?), but director Mark Romanek’s stark photography. His shots still remain burned into my cerebral celluloid and his work with Never Let Me Go reveals the same beauty, but doesn’t quite carry the same human vitality.
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) from childhood to adulthood, a journey during which they learn that they are not quite normal. To say more might stray into spoilers.
As in One Hour Photo, the photography makes you wish you could see your life through Romanek’s romantic lenses. The visuals inform the overall tone of tragedy, and every moment is filmed with a moving poetry that blesses each of the story’s time periods (1970s, 80s, and 90s).
That said, the abrupt shifts in time prove a detriment to the film. We develop connections to the children while they are at boarding school together, but then are vaulted into their early 20’s, and then 30s. Each fast forward creates emotional chasms between audience and film.
It could be an issue merely for me, but I also found the look of Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley (both in costume and physicality) startlingly anachronistic – especially when compared to co-star Carey Mulligan and other supporting players. Where Mulligan blends in with the period, Garfield and Knightley look like broody fashion models. These visual qualities fly in the face of Knightley’s exhortations that her parents* would be found “in the gutters,” which calls to mind poor and destitute persons malformed by their environment – not people who would be found on magazine covers.
The casting choices, visual qualities, and ending combine to make what is possibly an overstatement on the beauty of youth. Considering the film’s themes of mortality, I can understand this impulse, but there’s a little overkill. More than anything else, the film made me think of the Levi’s “Go Forth, O Pioneers” ad, which tried to appeal to the narcissistic self-importance of youth:
Finally, Never Let Me Go further disenchants audiences as it pins the whole film to a clunky block of novel-like narration. There were many ways to deliver this tale of youthful woe, and overbearing narration was surely the most blunt instrument available to package it.
That said, the film isn’t all bad–after all, it did bring a tear to my eye. The characters are walking tragedies, who only add to their woe with the silly mistakes of youth – the only thing they are allowed to have. When we actually see the fate of Ruth and Tommy, the film is firing on all cylinders; and despite my issues with the narration, Never Let Me Go doesn’t close with a whimper.
If I sound schizophrenic it’s because there’s a lot to love and a lot to loathe. You can see the strings attached to the tools of emotional manipulation, but when the strings go away it’s a lovely film. More than anything it knows how to convey mood more than link us with our three protagonist, which leads to this love/hate dynamic.
A second viewing is a must, though I’m not sure this is something I need to own. It is a beautiful film, both visually and in its narrative, which still allows the film to pack a punch at the end. Had a different casting decision been made for characters Ruth and Tommy, the film been a bit longer, and the ending less forceful, Never Let Me Go had the makings of a fantastic film. Instead, it is a good film. Maybe that’s enough, but it left me wanting what it could have been.
*SPOILERS For anyone looking for trouble, I know she doesn’t have a parent, but for the sake of those who haven’t seen the film, I’m not going to say her “original”