Based on the acclaimed novel by “The Remains of the Day” scribe Kazuo Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go” is that rare find, a fragile little four-leaf clover of a movie that’s emotionally devastating, yet all too easily trampled by cynics. Every carefully chosen gesture, composition and note in this tragic love story seems engineered to wring tears as director Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) gradually pulls back to reveal the full scope of his ambitious thought experiment. Literary pedigree and near-certain critical swell should give this Fox Searchlight release serious traction with adults, if not those closer to the characters’ ages.
Though technically a science-fiction story, “Never Let Me Go” plays more like a polite Victorian romance, all repressed feelings and unrequited yearning. Still, conceived in the spirit of such future-minded parables as “Children of Men” and “Fahrenheit 451,” Ishiguro’s premise — about an alternate society in which a special class of test-tube children are raised for the sole purpose of donating their organs — manipulates certain key variables in our world in order to arrive at some deeper truth.
Whereas the book withheld what made its three central donor children unique until nearly halfway through, screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”) puts it right out in the open. Though the students of Hailsham boarding school are too young to understand it, they are completely different from normal children, preparing not for life but for the more utilitarian function of extending the lives of others (since the National Donor Program was instated in 1952, life expectancy has climbed to 100). Their stern headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), takes great care to shelter them from any awareness of their fates or the well-rounded lives of which they’re being deprived.
Instead, the kids grow up believing all sorts of rumors and superstitions, from horrible stories of what happens to those who cross the school fence to a hazy rule granting Hailsham students a temporary reprieve from donations whenever they fall in love. Only idealistic new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) dares treat them honestly — an indiscretion that promptly gets her dismissed, but not before she has a chance to touch the lives of the three main characters.
First seen in 1978, Kathy (a sensitive Isobel Meikle-Small) will grow up to be a “carer” (played by Carey Mulligan), helping others through their operations. Kathy demonstrates this quality early on, attempting to comfort hot-headed Tommy after the other students pull a cruel prank on him. (Tommy is played by Charlie Rowe, who lacks many of the half-formed childlike mannerisms Andrew Garfield later uncovers in the character.) Before Kathy and Tommy’s shy courtship can properly take hold, her best friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell, a beautiful little back-stabber), makes a move, keeping the two soulmates apart for the better part of their short lives.
With Keira Knightley playing the elder Ruth (revisited at two more stages, as the trio leave Hailsham seven years later, and finally, in the midst of her donations), “Never Let Me Go” provides a dramatic reversal of the actress’ earlier “Atonement” — this time, it’s Knightley’s character who bears the guilt of ruining someone else’s relationship. Most auds will have been weeping long before Ruth asks forgiveness, such is the shameless, sympathy-mongering tone Romanek embraces for the entire film.
A series of mirthless gray halls, Hailsham is no Hogwarts, the costumes and furnishings more reminiscent of a 1930s juvenile detention center than of any institution operating during the late ’70s. Romanek, best known for his visionary musicvideo work, tries to hold back anything that might brand the film as overly personal, and yet, as in “One Hour Photo,” his gift for texture and tone shines through. Once again, the helmer seems drawn to the melancholy side of his material, directing the cast, especially Mulligan, to play everything as if teetering on the brink of a complete emotional breakdown.
This extreme approach requires a level of commitment not only from the cast but from the audience as well, asking us to look past huge plausibility holes (the whole donor system seems terribly inefficient) and instead dedicate our attention to deciphering the subtlest of nonverbal cues, often aided by Rachel Portman’s effectively grief-inducing score and Adam Kimmel’s lensing, which transforms every image into a source for introspection. A few faint wisps of narration aside, Mulligan does most of her work without dialogue, relying on engaged auds to piece together what Kathy is thinking.
Despite perpetrating a number of significant changes from the novel, Garland really gets to the marrow of it, raising philosophical questions about science and the soul that trace all the way back to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” With its ties to contemporary medical ethics as well, “Never Let Me Go” is the type of film that invites discussion after the fact, proving Romanek has more on his mind than simply making people cry.