TIFF 2011 Review: NEVER LET ME GO
Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro (novel), Alex Garland (screenplay)
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
In NEVER LET ME GO’s source material, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, there is what feels like a secret buried deep in its pages, unfurling itself across chapter after chapter. It’s one of those secrets that, when finally revealed, instantly ceases to surprise. You knew it all along, you just didn’t understand that you knew it. Mark Romanek’s NEVER LET ME GO spends less time shielding his audience from this supposed secret, revealing nearly all of it to sharp-minded viewers before the opening credits have even ended. But even that knowing doesn’t stop NEVER LET ME GO from, at its very best, creating a disaster-bound and heartbreaking tension that, pardon me, is hard to let go.
NEVER LET ME GO traces the brief lives of Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Played in younger years by a talented batch of lookalike youngsters, the three have grown up together as schoolchildren at not-just-a-school Hailsham House. The first third of the film (which is neatly cut into three distinct and titled sections, like Ishiguro’s novel) details this time in their adolescence. Narrated by Mulligan’s Kathy, NEVER LET ME GO starts a bit scattershot and vignette-based, until we remember that we are in the past, that these formative years are refracted back to us through not just unreliable memory, but Kathy’s particularly colored memory. It’s in this section that we are introduced to the complexities that rule Kathy’s life – what it is that makes Hailsham kids special, and who Ruth and Tommy are to her – which are the same complexities that frame up the rest of the film.
In a film this restrained (and one that, despite a “high-concept” idea at its center, is less about plot and more about emotion) the strength of its various leads’ performances is paramount to delivering emotional heft in those moments that go beyond the written word. Mulligan continues to turn in solid, grounding work. Much like AN EDUCATION’s Jenny, Kathy is both prenaturally worldwise and achingly emotionally closed. Knightley plays a character that seems to have quickly become the young actress’ bread and butter – her Ruth is a lovely creature who grows increasingly more aware (and more horrified) of her own cruelty, even if no one else around her is surprised by her actions.
But the real gem of NEVER LET ME GO is our man-who-would-be-Spider, Andrew Garfield. I have long touted Garfield’s acting ability, particularly in films such as the stunning BOY A and Spike Jonze’s surprisingly weighty short, I’M HERE. As Tommy, Garfield’s sensitivity is redirected into a coltish innocence that is so complete, it’s almost other-worldly. Tommy’s various masks shield his true depth of understanding until late in the film – Tommy is brazenly young, Tommy is devotedly optimistic, but Tommy will fly into screaming rages when anything butts up against those character markers. But unlike Ruth or Kathy (who are both guilty of feigning maturity in different ways), Tommy’s delicate buoyancy keeps him afloat. In short – Tommy believes in things, even when he knows there is nothing left to believe in.
The film hits a few false notes that will most likely stand out as adaptational gloss to devotees of the book. Sally Hawking’s Miss Lucy is without much of the character shades that went into the Lucy from Ishiguro’s book. Hawking’s Lucy appears to arrive at Hailsham already wide-eyed and unsteady, whereas her literary counterpart’s awakening to what is truly going on is much more gradual (and miles more believable). Romanek also takes some liberties when it comes to showing the general populace’s distaste for the Hailsham kids and others like them – an issue that is mentioned without restraint in the novel, but only somewhat hinted at in the film, which levels a bit of the emotion the children (particularly Kathy) feel when faced with something so much like revulsion from outsiders.
But, in many other ways, putting the work to film illuminates essential parts that must be experienced visually. NEVER LET ME GO works on a cold, nearly dreamy color and lighting palate that gradually warms and sharpens as more of the outside world is experienced by Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. There are few reds at Hailsham, and maybe too many when we begin to reach “Completion.” A huge debt is also owed to the costume design by Rachael Fleming and Steven Noble, who outfit our leads in clothes that appropriately verge on the too-big, the too-shabby, the too-timeless.
Both languid and yet economical with its story, Romanek has crafted something here that is often deeply touching, even as it feels somewhat hard to touch. NEVER LET ME GO goes for some big themes within its reels, and some big thoughts on all of them. It’s a film about indoctrination and innocence, deep misunderstanding and deep love, betrayal and belief – and what remains after they, in so many ways, let us go.
NEVER LET ME GO premiered at this year's Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival and will open in limited release this Wednesday, September 15.