Never Let Me Go stars two great English actresses who have risen to great heights in my eyes and in the North American consciousness: Carey Mulligan and Sally Hawkins. I would watch Sally Hawkins in anything, so I was hooked even though the trailer looked like the film looked beautiful but seemed too reserved emotionally. We must also remember that Keira Knightley always stars in an Oscar-baiting film every fall (see The Duchess in 2008 or Atonement in 2007). I also made the mistake of reading about Kazuo Ishiguro's novel and mistakenly learning the secret of the story. I was unsure of how this would affect me and my emotional response to the story. Never Let Me Go is rooted in the science fiction genre, but the film chooses to stay entirely within the limitations of drama. For most of the film this works quite well but Never Let Me Go is never quite able to find an emotional balance. Keira Knightley is a good actress who often misuses her talent by choosing showy roles instead of relying on her raw talent. I was unimpressed by her chemistry with both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, whereas I found Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield had the film's most emotionally intense scenes together. I have not read Ishiguro's novel, but I found Alex Garland's screenplay and Mark Romanek's direction too emotionally restrained. Never Let Me Go, a story about love and humanity, is beautifully photographed but the film is so emotionally limited that I felt little connection to the characters.
The film, like the novel, is separated into three stages. The story begins when Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Ruth (Ella Purnell) and Tommy (Charlie Rowe) are students at Hailsham, an English boarding school. They are only required to produce various forms of art and are not taught any life skills. The children at Hailsham are very cliquish but Kathy, Ruth and Tommy develop a close bond. Kathy has feelings for Tommy but is unable to act on it and soon Ruth and Tommy become a couple. During this time Miss Lucy (Hawkins) arrives at Hailsham and reveals to the students their role in life and is gone as quick as she appeared. As adults Kathy (Mulligan), Ruth (Knightley) and Tommy (Garfield) move to the Cottages together where they begin to connect with the outside world. Ruth and Tommy's relationship deepens as they await the time for them to become donors. They also learn that Hailsham students may be allowed to defer their donations if they can prove they are in love. Tensions arise within the group and Kathy leaves to become a carer. The three are reunited later when Kathy meets Ruth, whose health has vastly deteriorated. Ruth has made two donations and believes that her third will be her last. Ruth, knowing Kathy's feelings for Tommy, apologizes and urges Kathy and Tommy to pursue a relationship. Ruth provides them with the address for Madame, the mysterious woman believed to have the power to grant them a deferral.
It is unfortunate that Never Let Me Go, which has such a beautifully tragic and romantic story, is unable to provoke an emotional response. I feel that the film is far too reserved and focuses too much on Kathy's yearning than on the real relationships within the story. She pines for Tommy for the majority of the film and when given the opportunity to be with him, it feels anticlimactic and the chemistry between the two actors feels forced. Although the is shot with dark and beautiful tones, it echoes the emotional distance of the film. Never Let Me Go is beautiful and reserved but the story deserves more depth. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are exceptionally talented young actors who would have made the film more heartbreaking had they been given the opportunity to truly create these tragic characters. There is just something missing in this adaptation. I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel but I find it hard to believe that "the best novel of the decade" could be so emotionally handicapped. There was a considerable amount of buzz prior to the film's premiere at Telluride in September, but there is a reason that the film lost an awful lot of traction. Never Let Me Go would have been emotionally dissatisfying had I had any empathy for the characters, but the film feels as if it has been filtered to remove any humanity.
My rating: 2 stars out of 4.