Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Director: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In taking a fantastical sci-fi premise that could be ripped from The Twilight Zone and dropping it in a familiar, everyday reality, Never Let Me Go gives us something we've never seen before without flaunting it or obsessing over pointless details. It's a reminder that when executed to its full potential science fiction is the strongest genre out there simply because it's capable of exploring themes, emotions and situations conventional dramatic storytelling constraints would usually prohibit. The world presented to us here seems so frighteningly normal and similar to our own that the phrase "Based on a True Story" could have flashed before the opening credits and we'd believe it. As emotionally devastating as it is realistic it follows three friends who aren't exactly friends but are thrown together by dire circumstances they can't possibly control or possibly comprehend the full impact of. And that they can't understand it despite their best efforts to try just might be the saddest aspect of a story already loaded with sadness and regret.

Childhood memories, first loves, going away to school and everything else we'd usually associate with growing up seem profoundly different when looked at the through the painful prism of these characters' tragic lives. Mismarketed and misunderstood, the film faced an uphill battle from the start in being aimed at two wildly different types of audiences. Commercials and trailers were intentionally vague, leading to confusion and causing the picture to fall by the wayside amidst award competition from other prestigious releases at the end of last year. I've wrestled with whether I should reveal the key plot point (it's not a "twist" since it's revealed early and casually) in this review, and determined it's nearly impossible to discuss what makes the film so unique without doing so. A thesis paper could probably be written on the film's concepts, but what sets this apart is what's done with them, offering up a great case that the best films are capable of being just as intellectually stimulating as the literature they're based on.

The film is narrated by 28-year-old Kathy H., a young woman reflecting back on a childhood spent with friends Ruth and Tommy at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school that fosters creativity and physical health. But things aren't as rosy as they appear as stories and terrifying rumors circulate about what happens when you try to leave the grounds and daily medical check-ups tip off that these children are being groomed carefully for something important. They're scientific clones, being prepped to donate their vital organs to save terminally ill patients when they reach young adulthood. Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), the one teacher brave enough to let the children know of their purpose and early fates is fired as the kids continue to await the day they reach their teenage years and are shipped off to cottages before they start their donations. From their very early years at Hailsham young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) begins to fall for the highly emotional, quick-tempered Tommy (Charlie Rowe), but Ruth (Ella Purnell) selfishly sets her sights on him, driving a wedge between the three that will last into the better part of the next decade. Teenagers Ruth and Tommy (Keira Knightly and Andrew Garfield) are still together while heartbroken Kathy (Carey Mulligan) suffers in silence, knowing the time she could have spent with Tommy is whittling away. Reunited a decade later in young adulthood, the stakes become even higher as the three enter the final leg of their tragic journey, preparing to fulfill their ultimate purpose while still holding out hope there's some way out.

What starts looking like it's going to be one of those stuffy, British Oscar contending dramas like The King's Speech evolves into a dystopian nightmare, but slowly and with such clarity and casual confidence you hardly realize it's happening. Merely the existence of the big question as to why they just don't try to escape confirms the film has more on its mind than just its premise and is entirely unconcerned with consequences or a cheap action payoff you'd find in something like Logan's Run or The Island. What sets Alex Garland's script (adapted from Kazuo Ishiguru's bestselling novel) apart is that they wouldn't try to escape because the possibility doesn't exist in their minds that they can (though it's heavily implied certain safeguards are in place to prevent it should they try). This is just the way it is for them and scarier still is the notion that they seem uncertain that they want to and likely wouldn't have a clue what to do once they did. The most terrifying scene in the film comes when as children they're taught something as simple as how to order in a restaurant and the uncomfortable result later when they eventually have to. What motivation do they have to learn anything knowing their days are numbered? Armed with the knowledge they'll die before reaching their full potential informs the story in ways it couldn't if this were just about showing off its premise. Ruth's decades long attempt to come between Kathy and Tommy takes on an almost sadistic quality when you consider how little time is afforded to them.

Since first bursting on the scene a couple of years ago Carey Mulligan has been slowly building toward a performance like this but I didn't think it would happen this soon. She was strong in 2009's An Education (for which she was Oscar nominated) and in last year's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but this a far more challenging role than either, requiring her to tell the entire story of this girl on her face without words and convey the evolution of a character through the stages of her life. Her narration contains a matter-of-fact frankness that subtly adds even more weight to the tragedy. It's also amazing just how well she captures the mannerisms of her childhood counterpart from earlier in the film played by Isobel Meikle-Small (who looks and acts so much like Mulligan it's scary). This is one of those rare instances where the casting and performances are so spot-on that you actually believe the chosen sets of kid and adult actors are the same person.

Andrew Garfield's impact as the shy but sensitive adult Tommy isn't felt in full force until the brutal final hour as he builds on the frightened boy we first met at the start of the picture, now scrambling and seemingly on the verge of a mental meltdown as he attempts to delay the inevitable. Keira Knightley's an ironic choice for the antagonist since she's essentially playing the exact opposite role she did in Atonement where she was the victim in a relationship destroyed by jealous sabotage. This time she's the sabateour, investing Ruth with a detestable arrogance that masks her massive fear and insecurity. While I don't usually count myself as a Knightley fan it's surprising how much she does with what could have been a fairly limiting role, not to mention the physical and emotional transformation she undergoes toward the end of the picture that renders her character unrecognizable from how she began. Giving maybe the most fully realized performance of her career thus far, Knightly can take solace in the fact that she only comes off as the weak link because she's sharing the screen with two actors emerging as the best of their generation.

Thinking of this as Atonement meets Blade Runner in a genre bending mash-up helps in getting a handle on why it had little chance for commercial success. But mentioning Blade Runner in relation to this is slightly unfair in that it implies there's any running going on at all during the film or that the cloning aspect is the driving force in some kind of futuristic narrative. This amounts to much more  than that, using it as only a canvas to tell a deeper story. The film was directed by Mark Romanek who's last outing was 2002's creepy, underrated One Hour Photo and it's easy to see why he waited eight years to direct another movie if he was waiting on a script this strong. What both have in common are premises that could have easily deteriorated into cheap B-level entertainment but instead ended up contemplating actual ideas. Both are also incredibly somber and depressing, this maybe more so, but it's not without a purpose.   

Despite spanning over two decades in telling a story that feels epic in scope, the film's running time still flies by and Romanek creates an intimacy by setting it in a kind of retro alternate reality that closely resembles our own, yet strangely feels like a bygone era as well. We're always aware that the chances of an eleventh hour reprieve for the characters are slim, but not necessarily non-existent, and it's that hope that builds much of the tension, eventually leading to a well earned emotional release. But the most sobering possibility implied in Never Let Me Go is that our lives may differ very little from that of the film's victim donors. If that's not deep enough stuff to think about, I don't know what is.

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