There is a powerfully harrowing emotionality in Mark Romanek's directorial adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's best selling novel Never Let Me Go (the screenplay of which has been adapted by Alex Garland) that leads, in full crescendo style, to a final act that proverbially blows one's mind, and leaves the broken pieces all over the theater floor. Perhaps a bit blatant at times in its needless over explanation of certain psychological plot points (ironically some people still leave the theater in a state of bewildery from what they have just witnessed) Never Let Me Go nonetheless packs the kind of wallop (for lack of a better word) that makes one either forgive or forget such obvious, yet ultimately overshadowed directorial miscalculations. The tormented state of the characters up on the screen - and the remarkable performances of those actors playing them - is more than enough to cancel out any slight critical questions one might have regarding any sort of heavy-handedness - real or imagined. In other words, whatever the film lacks in directorial knowledge, it more than makes up for in both its tragically sublime storytelling and in the stunning portrayals of these tragically sublime heroes and heroines.
In not wanting to give anything away for those who have not already read the novel, one must surely keep one's synopsisizing down to the barest of minimums, which is why it should suffice to say that Never Let Me Go is the story of three young English students in a countryside boarding school (ominously called Hailsham) who must face the cold hard facts of not just growing up, but what they are growing up to become. Set in relative modern times - running from the late seventies to the late nineties - but in an alternate reality of the world we know, Never Let Me Go takes place in a world where most disease has been eradicated through scientific breakthroughs and where certain children are bred to become what essentially amounts to scientific fodder, in what are called their donations, in order to keep disease at bay and make the world a healthier place and life a longer experience - well, longer for some at least, decidedly shorter for others.
Once we leave Hailsham and move forward in these characters lives, and these child actors (all spectacular doppelgangers for their adult selves) transform into Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, the film (as did the novel) begins to dig even deeper into the idea of a person's worth when measured against that of all of humanity - bringing into the discussion such atrocities as slavery and animal experimentation. But above all else (and there is a Hell of a lot going on here) Never Let Me Go is about the emotional sacrifice we all must make at some point in our lives. Never Let Me Go pushes that sacrifice further than most of us have had to deal with, and in doing so, not only tugs at the heartstrings (as the unimaginative admen might say) but renders them completely unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a bit of hyperbolizing on this critic's behalf, but there is no denying that the final fifteen minutes or so of Never Let Me Go is an emotional zeitgeist of sorts.
Not to give anything away, but the complete transformation of all three of these characters into something else entirely (emotionally and physically both) is an amazing feat of writing and a spectacular feat of acting on all three's part. Knightley and especially Garfield both go out on their own individual dramatic limbs, but it is Mulligan, and her Kathy H. that must hold the film together as it were - both as a character and as an actor. Mulligan, as the heart of the film, and therefore the emotional center, shows here what she promised in An Education. Without much outward physicality like her emotionally wrecked costars (and that is not a criticism of either of them - they are both heartbreaking in their final moments before the film ends and Garfield especially transcends cinema during his realization of what fate has dealt him), Mulligan transforms herself into one of the finest actors working today. With just the tilt of her head or the twist of her lip or that faraway stare the belies her otherwise youthful look, Mulligan goes beyond anyone else and breaks our collective heart with her understated acceptance of her unfair and quite cruel fate.
In the end, it is this harrowing emotionality that will decide the fate of not only these characters, but the fate of this film. For better or for worse, the tragedy of these three characters are also heaped upon we the viewers. The poised demolition of Knightley's soul, the visceral howls of Garfield's anguish and the subtly sublime tragic stare of Mulligan all combine to create a film that cannot and will not soon be forgotten. [11/07/10]