The big questions about life and death are particularly present with a group of children in the English countryside in Never Let Me Go, a dreamy and contemplative drama based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Young Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) are friends growing up in a traditional-seeming English boarding school called Hailsham. The children seem like future members of the English upper class but there is no discussion of future careers and no evidence of parents. There is, however, an emphasis on health and there is interest from the adults in seeing the artwork produced by the children. Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a boy in Kathy and Ruth’s grade, is bad at art and easily frustrated so he is often picked on by other students, including Ruth. But Kathy likes Tommy, attempts to befriend him and eventually even shows the first signs of sweetheartness, sharing a smooch with him. Ruth, the classic frenemy, doesn’t like the budding romance and so she insinuates herself, making Tommy her boyfriend.
Years later and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Ruth (Keira Knightly) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) leave Hailsham and head to The Cottages, a kind of group home where they’re to live for the next few years. Tommy and Ruth are still together and Kathy is still in love with him.
Of course, none of this quite explains the grand truth of the lives of these three young people. If you’ve read the book or any kind of in-depth discussion of the movie, you may know what that truth is. I won’t go into details except to say that even youth and love and happiness have a melancholy tint for this trio and people like them.
Never Let Me Go in its setup is actually a science fiction story. It posits a world with certain technologies that change some basic truths about human life. It is both interesting and rather frustrating how the movie then examines the emotional side of this alternate universe without giving us the technical details — how it works and how it got that way. Though the setup is sci-fi, the story in action is pure drama. Perhaps in part because of the British setting and the female protagonists, Never Let Me Go brought to mind a kind of down-beat Jane Austen, a darker, less optimistic Persuasion.
The story is told through the narration of Carey Mulligan’s Kathy, in her late 20s in the movie’s bookending “present” tense. She seems particularly Austen-esque — quiet and yet able to say so much with minimal facial expressions. It’s her performance, ultimately, that kept me tethered to the movie, which moves about three steps slower than you will in figuring out the plot. While the story frequently drags, she remains a bright point on screen, holding your attention.
Never Let Me Go is probably, ultimately, more fun to ponder than it is exciting to watch. But its quietness and strong central performance make it worth a look.B
Rated R for some sexuality and nudity. Directed by Mark Romanek and written by Alex Garland (from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), Never Let Me Go is an hour and 43 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.