Watching Mark Romanek’s masterful “Never Let Me Go” is like the scene in a martial-arts movie where you’re fighting the bad guy and the next thing you know, without even feeling it, he’s ripped out your still-beating heart and is showing it to you. Upon seeing what’s happened you suddenly feel immense pain before crumbling to the ground and realizing that all is lost. It feels odd making that kind of analogy about such a beautiful, poignant and wholly moving film, but I feel it’s an apt one because as I left the theater, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop the film contained. I’m still thinking about it (and reeling from it) days later.
In the film we meet Kathy (Mulligan) a peaceful woman who informs us she is a “carer” and that she’s quite good at her job. While she doesn’t explain what her job entails, we soon see a young man on a hospital bed headed in for surgery so hey, she must be some kind of doctor. Through Kathy’s narration, we flash back in time to when she was a preteen living at a strange boarding school in the English countryside with her best friends Ruth and Tommy. It’s clear the school is special in some way as the students are all extraordinarily well-behaved and controlled to the point of apparent brainwashing. They listen intently to their headmaster, check into each room they enter via an electronic wristband and never, never set foot outside of school grounds.
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy begin an odd little love triangle that seems powerful, yet devoid of any real emotional investment from any of them and this feels like an odd choice. But remember, this entire tale is told to us by Kathy and this sort of “detachment” is due to the fact that Kathy is quite unsure what is happening both in her own mind and in the life she’s leading. A renegade teacher soon informs her class (and all of us watching) that everyone at Hailsham is there to grow healthy and strong before their major organs and body parts are removed and given to their “original,” a person they were modeled upon in order to boost the life expectancy rate to above 100 years old. If this sounds like a familiar plotline, it sort of is because Michael Bay covered it horribly in his crappy “The Island.” Yet comparing Romanek and “Never Let Me Go” to Bay and “The Island” is like comparing Kobi beef to a tube of hamburger you buy at Costco, respectively.
Mark Romanek has made some of the most visually indelible music videos ever seen and “Never Let Me Go” contains similarly impossible to forget images. A scene where a bird flies into a cottage and perches sweetly on a tea pot and another later where Tommy, now a young man, races down a beach to play aboard a small boat that has washed ashore and sits tilted on the beach are two of my favorites. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy never get too high or too low and as a result, we’re kind of lulled into a sense that everything will be o.k., and maybe it will. But as the film progresses, we see just how very wrong all the young adults that attended Hailsham have it and this again is due to the main point of view in the story. Fans of the unreliable narrator in cinema will have a field day with “Never Let Me Go.”
The acting by Mulligan and Garfield (yay, new Spider-man!) is great and subdued, and this adds to that detached feeling one gets. But it’s Knightley as Ruth, who pulls the strings both emotionally and physically, that really shines brightest of all the performances. Yet the real star here is Romanek, who in only his second feature film (after the similarly creepy “One-Hour Photo”), steals the show. He’s put a completely fresh spin on the sci-fi genre film and the result is a damn near masterpiece. This is entirely due to Romanek’s choices in storytelling, specifically the drab, earthly color palette, sweet yet cold performances and the meta, surgeon-like precision he uses to cut apart viewers until there is nothing left of them. Through Romanek’s director’s eye we become a part of the story, almost another student at the school who has been given false ideas, promises and facts. By the time this is all realized, it’s too late for any of us and the results are excruciating.