Movie review: 'Never Let Me Go'

Carey Mulligan, left, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield in the ambitious drama "Never Let Me Go."
Carey Mulligan, left, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield in the ambitious drama "Never Let Me Go." (Alex Bailey/fox Searchlight)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" epitomizes the kind of somber, aesthetically refined and morally engaged film that commands deep respect without inspiring much affection. Adapted from the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo"), this ambitiously restrained film will most likely please fans of the book's dire speculative vision, even if it leaves others wondering why Ishiguro's gruesome, even sadistic premise merits such tender artistic ministrations.

Like last year's "The Road," adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, "Never Let Me Go" offers filmgoers a haunting reminder of life's most enduring questions -- in this case about how to wring meaning and love from our all-too-short time on earth -- but only after putting them through an imaginative journey that, in its series of progressively more wrenching what-ifs, borders on the cruel.

Part of the propulsive power of "Never Let Me Go" lies in the mystery at its core, so the fewer clues given by way of synopsis, the better. The story is narrated by Kathy (Carey Mulligan), who, as the movie opens, explains that she started her young life in the 1970s, at a well-tended British boarding school called Hailsham. There, she befriended Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), who, along with Kathy, live in a world that, while in many ways sequestered and pampered, has a castoff quality to it. The highlight of year at Hailsham is when a truckload of scarred, heavily used toys arrived for the children to "buy" with tokens they've earned.

As Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow into a similarly obedient young adulthood, the reality of their fate settles in, with Kathy meanwhile having to come to terms with a romance between Ruth and Tommy. From Hailsham, the trio eventually moves to a euphemistically named institution known as the Cottages, where they befriend others like them and begin to question their fate. Filmed by Romanek in muted hues of gray and blue, "Never Let Me Go" combines the bleak austerity of classic British miserablism with the almost-but-not-quite futuristic science fiction of "Children of Men." The film's greatest strength is its sense of timelessness, of an era that might have just passed or may just be impending. (Seen in the context of last summer's talk of "death panels" and socialized medicine, the story's doomsday scenario may strike some viewers as a bit too close for comfort.)

Strong, too, are the film's lead performances in roles that call for a combination of realism and otherworldly naivete -- especially from the luminous Mulligan, whose Kathy combines steely resolve and aching vulnerability. But ultimately, even the most sensitive efforts of Romanek and his estimable cast can't overcome the pall of fatalism that envelopes Ishiguro's foreclosed universe. Then again, that interpretation may be a function of perspective. Perhaps the most lasting lesson of "Never Let Me Go" is that one person's poetic testament to acceptance and human connection is another's masochistic wallow in resignation and passivity.

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