In the quietly terrifying dystopian Britain of “Never Let Me Go,” art might literally be the saving grace for a trio of young adults facing a deadly future. “That’s the whole thing about art,” explains Tommy (Andrew Garfield): “It says what’s inside of you; it reveals your soul.” If that’s the case, then it seems that director Mark Romanek’s soul is rather obtuse, and completely enamored with the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. Fortunately for Romanek, several of Tommy’s beliefs about art are disproved by the end of the film, and although “Never Let Me Go” remains flawed, it also demonstrates a high level of technical skill that will serve the director well if he ever learns to trust in the intelligence of his audience.
The film, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, sketches the relationships between Tommy, Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), who spend their childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school for “special” children, and remain in touch later in life. Initially, it seems unclear why the actors, who deliver the realistic dialogue with subtlety and sensitivity, shuffle towards their fate with all the initiative of laboratory mice. However, it quickly becomes clear that character development is one of several areas in which Romanek’s translation of source material into film went awry. It is a natural and relatively common convention to represent internal states in a novel; this is not so on film, where Romanek lacks the creativity to convey his characters’ motivations. Most of the time he does not even try, and when he does, relying on voice-overs by Mulligan at particularly dramatic moments, the technique seems so heavy-handed and clichéd that it distracts from what is said.
“Never Let Me Go” seems written to be an independent film—its episodic story line, literary pedigree, and ambiguous love story all require a more inventive style than conventional storytelling can provide. Romanek seems entirely oblivious to this need, and working with cinematographer Adam Kimmel, has created a visual aesthetic that is part-wildlife documentary and part-unmemorable Oscar bait. Nearly every sequence is bookended with shots of raindrops and dewy grass; while some are very beautiful indeed, they serve no clear purpose in context. Similarly, Kimmel’s slightly seasick handheld camera does nothing but offer a reprieve from the otherwise numbingly conventional compositions, and lay bare the director’s uncertainty about what the film’s aesthetic should be. But perhaps the most glaring flaw in “Never Let Me Go” is its overbearing score. Romanek uses the string-heavy music as a crutch to such an extent that he undercuts the emotion that was already present in the acting and screenplay.
This is not to say that Romanek lacks skill, only that he does not know how to apply it correctly—an unsurprising fact given that he specializes in music documentaries and videos. Ishiguro’s novel is hard to ruin, and despite his pandering, Romanek’s execution is largely sound. He demonstrates a particular sensitivity to the use of light—something that is often ignored by directors working in color—and his palette, dominated by blue, gray, and off-white, is pretty if not appropriate to the story’s understated menace. And by avoiding the trap of dwelling too much on the logistics of the film’s alternate history, he shows at least some appreciation of Ishiguro’s emphasis on human relationships and psychology.
There is a scene in the middle of “Never Let Me Go” that is representative of the film’s ultimate weaknesses. Knightley and Mulligan run on a beach and commiserate about their origins. “We are modeled on trash,” Knightley screams, to the more restrained Mulligan’s discomfort. Everything about the sequence is competent, from the somber color scheme to the heartfelt performances. The scene should be wrenching, and yet it is not. In “Never Let Me Go,” the society assumes that the “special” residents of Hailsham have no souls. The audience knows that they do, but Romanek’s overbearing directing calls into question whether the same can be said of his film.
—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at email@example.com.