It is not often that you come home from a film feeling both defeated and genuinely happy. While these would appear to be contradicting emotions, that is exactly how I felt coming from Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. The film, written by Alex Garland and based on the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, is beautiful and emotionally devastating at the same time.
The film opens in the 1970’s, focusing on the lives of three school children in an English private school. Although at first sight the setting appears normal enough, we quickly discover these are not normal children, as they exist solely to have their organs harvested once they become adults.
Never Let Me Go seamlessly combines period drama and science fiction. The alternative reality we are shown is never fully explained nor needs to be. The film is purely about the three main characters: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. It is the film’s deep focus on the emotions and personalities of the characters that makes it fascinating. The world they live in is simply there–reality for them–no explanations needed.
A film as personal as this relies heavily on the actors; and without their strong performances the film would have fallen flat. An Education‘s Carrie Mulligan stars as Abbie, a girl who does not act but rather observes. Andrew Garfrield plays Tommy, who Kathy has been in love with since they were children. Keira Knightley is provides the most surprising performance as Ruth, who jealously falls for Tommy. Fortunately, no one disappoints, in fact, they all exceed expectations. As these characters are shielded from normalcy, the performances we get portray them as innocents. This is especially true of Andrew Garfield, who plays Tommy as a naive, innocent teenager who wants nothing more than to live longer than he is programmed to. It is his performance that stands out, it is understated, but still emotionally heart wrenching.
The difficulty in reviewing this film for me comes from the emotional impact it had. Many films will tug at the heart strings, manipulating the audience into feeling a sadness that is not real. This film does not manipulate, it has a genuine sadness at its core that leaves you devastated. No film has left me on the verge of tears as much as this one has. In an age of formulaic films, it is utterly refreshing to see something so genuine on screen, even though the characters’ situations are foreign to the audience.
Alex Garland has often been criticized for his inability to write logical conclusions to his films. While I personally don’t agree with that, Never Let Me Go proves that wrong. The final act of the film doesn’t try to trick us into feeling for the characters as we already do. The characters reunite after years apart from each other; now, closer to the end, they spend what could be their last days together. There is no twist to the film, it ends exactly how we know it will, and that is where the sadness comes from. We know the fates of these characters, and the films’ focus is on their struggle to accept their fate just as we have had to.
Mark Romanek is a veteran music video director, and Never Let Me Go is only his second feature film, although you wouldn’t know it. Romanek shows a maturity and patience behind the camera that is not only rare for young filmmakers but for veteran ones as well. His use of focus leads to one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, if not the most.
Never Let Me Go is without a doubt my favourite film of the year, so far. It had the emotional impact that I usually judge a film’s quality on. The fact it is not being talked about more is truly a bewildering shame. I fear it will be forgotten, as dramas that do not garner Oscar attention usually do.