There is a great idea for a movie in Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel "Never Let Me Go," but its not apparent in the new film from director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland. Debuting at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival on opening night, "Never" features hard earned performances by Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, but seems like a tough sell in the early fall movie season. It also faces a rocky road as an awards contender, but the film's early Sept. 15 release should have been the first hint something was amiss.
Set in what is never identified but is a world with an alternate history to our own, the picture begins with a title card telling the audience that the breakthrough began in 1952. And by 1967, the average lifespan was now 100 years. We are quickly introduced to three young students at the English boarding school Hailsham: Cathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). The trio form a love triangle that complicates they're true purpose in life: to be farmed as human organ donors. The students at Hailsham are part of a National Donor Program and are actually clones of other people (who exactly are never revealed). As they grow up, Tommy and Ruth become a "couple" as they prepare for their time to become donors (it appears to be around the age of 26-28). The Sci-Fi elements of the tale are largely overshadowed for the film's real drama is whether the unrequited love between Cathy H and Tommy will ever reach fruition before what we assume is impending death for all.
What is most disappointing about "Never Let Me Go" is that the film is that the picture's tone is so sad and morose it hinders any real connection for the characters. You want them to have one moment of joy, one minute of happiness in their days waiting for their eventual fate (and there are told to be many), but it never happens (or is reduced to forced laughter at an American TV sitcom). All the actors bring a youthful energy to the parts as would be expected for children who never really had parents, but it is more apparent in how they speak to each other than in any expression of - gasp - fun.
Sadly, Romanek, who has created some of the most iconic images of the past 20 years with his music video work has reigned himself in with the material. He mentioned before the film began that he didn't come on as an "auteur," but as "part of a team" and that conservative direction is evident throughout. A little more daring -- at least visually -- could have elevated the material beyond its tame visual aesthetic.
The actors, on the other hand, do everything they can to try and make the film work. Knightly has the toughest challenge as Ruth, a character who is increasingly unsympathetic as the picture wears on and she largely is grating. It's Mulligan and Garfield who are left to forge the chemistry between their star-crossed lovers. Unfortunately the tone and script don't help Mulligan's emotional moments as they fall largely flat. Instead, the only true moving moment belongs to Garfield, but it's one guttural reaction that the rest of the picture can't live up to.
As for the the awards game, it's possible Mulligan and Garfield could get some play for "Never," but its hard to imagine either of them at the nomination finish line.
Again, there is a great idea for a film in the source material for "Never Let Me Go," but this incarnation just can't hold on.
"Never Let Me Down" opens in limited release on Sept. 15.
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