I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a widely-praised 2005 novel about life of a certain sort in a dystopian Britain in an alternate 20th Century. But I sort of feel as though I have read it, thanks to the new film adaptation written by Alex Garland (a sometime-collaborator of Danny Boyle), and directed by Mark Romanek (a tremendously brilliant music video director whose only other feature film is 2002's One Hour Photo). Not to put too fine a point on it, this is the kind of adaptation that is absolutely terrified to be a movie, preferring instead to lay out stretches of narrative, lovingly consider them, and then pound them full of nails so that there can be no accidental movement or any sort of vitality mucking up the precious, airless delicacy of it all.
This was not, by the way, my reaction while I was actually sitting in the theater, watching Never Let Me Go. For all of the film's relatively brisk 103 minutes, it struck me as a perfectly fine, not unusually urgent, prestige picture: capably acted, absolutely gorgeous, moody in all the right ways. It was only afterward - seconds afterward, in fact - that the profound emptiness of the movie really sank in, when I discovered that I had, effectively, nothing to keep thinking about. This is the devilish sin of a story that presents a real deep, twisty concept, and then scrupulously refuses to ask nearly any of the questions that follow naturally from the premise, or really to try and connect the incidents of the plot to any kind of greater reality whatsoever. It is a film deeply pockmarked by tiny notions that indicate a compelling depth is there for the delving, but nobody involved wants to deal with more than an airbrushed psychodrama.
We are informed by a title card: "The medical breakthrough came in 1952. By 1967, life expectancy had passed 100", or words to that effect. Tantalising, no? And by far the best parts of Never Let Me Go are the ones that tell the story while allowing the explanation to sit mostly untouched, except for an opening scene in which 29-year-old Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan) watches a young man getting prepped for surgery, to donate an indeterminate number of vital organs. She narrates this, and proceeds to narrate for all the rest of the movie, which immediately resets to 1978, when she (played as a girl by Isobel Meikle-Small) was a student at the Hailsham School in the English countryside. Here, she gravely indicates in voiceover, she began a lifelong relationship with Ruth (Ella Purnell), a prickly, precocious thing, and Tommy (Charlie Rowe), an affable dunce.
It's not a twist, and barely a surprise, when we learn that Hailsham is a pen, basically, for children who were cloned and bred for the single purpose of organ farming, and by the time the kids grow up (Ruth is now Keira Knightley, and Tommy is Andrew Garfield: not a new face, exactly, but very shortly he's going to be completely unavoidable), they have grown idly used to the idea of being very well-educated cattle; Kathy is somewhat more discomfited by this fact than the other two, who are now romantically involved, and it's certainly the case that Kathy's mopey jealousy about this fact is a more pressing issue to her than the fact that she's going to be carved up and disposed off by the time she's 30.
There are so many issues that instantly crop up when you hear that scenario! And yet, they're largely sidelined or ignored in favor of a romantic drama that only occasionally remembers that it's a dystopian, borderline science-fiction narrative. It's difficult to conceive of a way to tell this exact story that doesn't hinge upon the character's awareness of their abbreviated lifespans as a driving force in their curious little emotional three-way; yet Romanek and Garland have endeavored to do so, with the scenes (mostly in the last third of the film) that explicitly address this issue feeling tacked-on to the greater drama: OMG, is Kathy going to end up with Tommy?!
Worse still, the other big question the film doesn't really care about - the social context of this world, and the ethical ramifications outside the limited sphere of Hailsham, and later the even more limited sphere of the Cottages - isn't ignored outright, but brought up more than once, and lamely discarded, as though nobody could think of anything interesting to say about it, but knew that it was an elephant in the room that had to be talked up. This is a particularly egregious failure: by design (both the filmmakers', and presumably the unseen breeders'), Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are fairly empty-headed individuals, making them difficult audience surrogates; I for one found it much easier to identify with the teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), the first person to bring up this ethical question, and even with the stern Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), who does the same in a late scene that makes very little objective sense, but partially because of Rampling's refusal to let such things bother her, comes across as one of the most fascinating, probing moments in the film. My greater point being, it's downright cruel of the filmmakers to dangle these characters with a more "adult" perspective in front of us, and then snatch them away - "oh, no, that's not what the film is about".
In place of a genuine treatment of its own themes, all that Never Let Me Go has to offer is tastefulness: lots and lots of extremely classy tastefulness that leaves the film not just restrained, but practically mummified. This is mostly thanks to Adam Kimmel's cinematography, which bathes everything in the exact same frosty haze which, in a version of this story with a clear sense of its own identity, might have even provided some kind of thematic resonance; but here, coupled with the immaculate lighting, makes the whole film look like a series of romantic snapshots - an impression not helped by Romanek's weird insistence on stripping away movement from the frame whenever possible. Also contributing to the film's eminently respectable & boring tone is Rachel Portman's dramatic, string-heavy score, which is a little cloying and a little urgent when you first hear it, but so quickly recedes to the background that it ends up as little more than white noise.
In the face of all this, the talented cast does their best: Rampling is easily the stand-out, in a tiny role, while Hawkins loses herself in an exposition-heavy character who is a terrible fit for the gifted actress's natural strengths. The trio at the center has to contend with characters that, for the most part, don't really do much: Kathy's wordy narration is both redundant to whatever the onscreen people do or feel, and much more specific, which virtually gives Mulligan two roles to play, and she does a fine job with both of them, though she does just as much with far less in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Garfield is good as a blank slate - a compliment, though it doesn't sound that way - while poor Knightley does what she can to combat the most apocalyptically ill-chosen wig that has disgraced cinema screens in years, and ultimately loses.
In the end, they do manage to bring a bit of spark to what is otherwise a perniciously sedate "motion" picture, and in faith, I am probably speaking too harshly of Never Let Me Go: it is not at all painful to watch, though it's awfully unengaging. At least it's stupidly pretty. Can't ever complain about a movie being pretty.