×

Never Let Me Go

An emotionally devastating adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

With:
Kathy - Carey Mulligan Tommy - Andrew Garfield Ruth - Keira Knightley Young Kathy - Isobel Meikle-Small Young Ruth - Ella Purnell Young Tommy - Charlie Rowe Miss Emily - Charlotte Rampling Miss Lucy - Sally Hawkins Madame - Nathalie Richard Chrissie - Andrea Riseborough Rodney - Domhnall Gleeson

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.

Popular on Variety

Never Let Me Go

U.K.

Production: A Fox Searchlight (in U.S.) release presented with DNA Films and Film4, produced in association with Dune Entertainment. Produced by Andrew MacDonald, Allon Reich. Executive producers, Alex Garland, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tessa Ross. Co-producer, Richard Hewitt. Directed by Mark Romanek. Screenplay, Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Adam Kimmel; editor, Barney Pilling; music, Rachel Portman; music supervisors, Randall Poster, George Drakoulias; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designers, Rachel Fleming, Steven Noble; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Jim Greenhorn; re-recording mixers, Mike Dowson, Richard Pryke; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Glenn Freemantle; visual effects supervisor, Matthew Twyford; visual effects, Baselblack; special effects supervisor, Sam Conway; associate producer, Joanne Smith; assistant director, Lee Grumett; casting, Kate Dowd. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 3, 2010. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations; London Film Festival -- opener.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 MIN.

Cast: Kathy - Carey Mulligan Tommy - Andrew Garfield Ruth - Keira Knightley Young Kathy - Isobel Meikle-Small Young Ruth - Ella Purnell Young Tommy - Charlie Rowe Miss Emily - Charlotte Rampling Miss Lucy - Sally Hawkins Madame - Nathalie Richard Chrissie - Andrea Riseborough Rodney - Domhnall Gleeson

More Scene

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for best actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

  • Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson Premiere

    Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski on What Modern Women Can Learn From Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson lived in the 1800s, but if you ask the team behind Apple TV Plus’ upcoming series, “Dickinson,” her story is more current than ever. Hailee Steinfeld stars in the the modern-day retelling of the poet’s young life. The actress — who makes her first full-time foray into television with the role and also [...]

  • Don Cheadle

    ACLU Bill of Rights Gala to Honor Don Cheadle, Feature Appearances by Selena Gomez, Regina Hall

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California will honor “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Monday” star Don Cheadle at the organization’s annual Bill of Rights dinner on Nov. 17 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Cheadle will be recognized for his activist work as an advocate for racial and gender equality, immigration reform, reproductive and LGBTQ [...]

  • Helen Mirren attends the LA Premiere

    Why Helen Mirren Considers Catherine the Great to Be 'Superhuman'

    It’s no secret that Dame Helen Mirren has a knack for nailing regal roles. Following her Oscar-winning on-screen reign as Queen Elizabeth II back in 2006, the thespian brings yet another powerful ruler to life in HBO’s limited mini-series “Catherine the Great.” Just as she does on the small screen as Russian Empress Catherine II, [...]

  • Taika Waititi Jojo Rabbit Premiere

    Why Director Taika Waititi Decided to Play Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'

    “Fox Searchlight blackmailed me into doing it,” Taika Waititi told Variety of playing Adolf Hilter in “Jojo Rabbit” at the film’s premiere at American Legion Post 43 on Tuesday night in Hollywood. Staying mum when asked which other actors had been on his wish list to play the role, Waititi explained why he eventually decided [...]

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content