TIFF10 REVIEW: Never Let Me Go [2010]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: October 15th, 2010 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Mark Romanek
Writer(s): Alex Garland / Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)

“I didn’t want to be the one left alone”

It has been eight years since Mark Romanek last gave us a feature film—the decade since One Hour Photo being filled with a spate of music videos and an ill-fated affair with what would become last winter’s Wolfman. He possesses a certain aesthetic, noticeable throughout his work as a style leaning towards darker subject matter, so when I first watched the trailer for Never Let Me Go, I thought it seemed an odd choice. Screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, what seems like a conventional young adult romance between three sheltered children doesn’t take long to reveal its hidden truths. The world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel appears like ours on the surface, but as two important lines of text at the start show, there is one major difference—illness has been wiped out. Cancer, disease, and for all intents and purposes, early death, have been cured; 1952 is the beginning of this brave new world and by 1967 life expectancy reaches beyond 100 years. So, what we discover is that the children at the center of this dramatic thriller aren’t merely lovebirds growing up, they are also the cost of the cure.

The title comes from the fictional oldies song by Judy Bridgewater, a second-hand cassette tape bought with buttons and given to young Kathy by Tommy in the sort of expression of love that only a 12-year old can give. Bullied, ignored, and possessed of the temper to lash out from the frustration of it all, Tommy finds he has no one else but this girl, always showing him affection despite his lack of artistic merit or athletic skill, never getting a piece of work chosen for the gallery or picked for the sports team. Being at a boarding school such as Hailsham separates you from the world, so any connection is a worthwhile one. But Kathy soon finds herself on the outside looking in once her friend Ruth swoops in to take his heart from her, beginning a long-lasting relationship that continues once they leave for the Cottages at 18 in 1985. The three are forever inseparable, though, tentatively learning about what is outside their school’s walls and the future that has been set before them from the moment of conception.

Reviewing a film like this, where the mystery is revealed at the start, but only partially so, is a tough endeavor because I do believe the unknown of what truly is happening adds to its emotional resonance. I’ll just say these children are raised for a specific purpose; two occupations as options for them once their respite post-school has ended. Whether they themselves know this path fully, or if it is taught to them later on, doesn’t seem to matter since the choice isn’t within their control. A new teacher, Sally Hawkins’s Miss Lucy, feels it the obligation of the adults to open their eyes to this truth early, but as you’ll see when she does, the kids’ demeanors don’t necessarily change; perhaps they always knew subconsciously anyway. Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Ruth (Ella Purnell), and Tommy (Charlie Rowe) continue to be children, a more rapid progression of education the only thing separating them from our own adolescence. Sex-Ed is taught early, relationships are formed with more love than might appear normal for their age, and the naïveté to the outside is tempered with lessons in ordering at restaurants and exchanging money for goods, little things we take for granted, but are completely absent within Hailsham’s walls.

Once the actors change into their young adult forms, (Kathy becoming Carey Mulligan, Ruth to Keira Knightley, and Tommy to Andrew Garfield), spending time in chaperoned freedom before their destinies are fulfilled, the question of mortality rears its head, as well as the existence/importance of the human soul. Love, companionship, and duty become the themes screenwriter Alex Garland brings forth from his adaptation. We see the complicated relationship of these three best friends and the differences between them—one selfishly stealing happiness, one submissive to the mysteries of the world, and the other selfless to a fault, letting the other two maintain their façade of bliss at the expense of her own. But these poor creatures all must eventually learn to give; it is the point of their lives. We see how each accepts that fact, the road heartbreaking as they seek any loophole to escape for just one more day together. Just like all stories of utopia, however, their underlying dystopic infrastructure begins to show through, bringing with it hard choices and tough answers. Idyllic perfection is only made possible by the sacrifice of those less fortunate—it’s true in times of war and it is true here.

People could, and most definitely will, try and pin a political message onto the film. It probably does exist, it’s unavoidable to think so once the revelation of what’s happening is discovered, but I also don’t believe that’s Romanek’s main intention. Perhaps it is due to the phenomenal performances by Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley, but above all the moral conceits is the facility for humanity’s compassion and ability to love unconditionally. These three have lives with very specific paths towards oblivion—nothing is left to chance except for the people they spend time with. One cannot deny the infinite worth of the soul, that one intangible which makes us human, bonding us emotionally and psychologically together. Pieces are given to those we let in and feelings are never quite excised completely when apart, no matter the time or distance between. A utilitarian outlook of life is never an easy one to accept unless the poor souls used as collateral for the rest are hidden away from view. Out of sight/out of mind—it’s a way of living people find all too easy to adopt. Never Let Me Go, however, shows us that the price can be too steep. We all bleed, we all feel loss, and we all die. The devastation of that reality should never be taken lightly.

[1] L to R: Domhnall Gleeson, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrea Riseborough in NEVER LET ME GO; Photo by Alex Baile
[2] L to R: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in NEVER LET ME GO; Photo by Alex Bailey
[3] Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Never Let Me Go (2010)

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