In A Dystopian Britain, Teens Grope Toward A Future

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield

What Now? Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are students whose British boarding school isn't preparing them for the usual sort of post-secondary life. Alex Bailey/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Bailey/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Never Let Me Go

  • Director: Mark Romanek
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 103 minutes

Rated R for sexual situations

With: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley

(Recommended)

A social drama in the guise of a science-fiction parable, Never Let Me Go proves a remarkably successful adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed 2005 novel. Director Mark Romanek and scripter Alex Garland do make a few missteps, but most of the movie's off-key notes result simply from the inherent limitations of squeezing a book's contents into a feature-length film.

The story revolves around Kathy, the narrator, and friends Tommy and Ruth. They've all met at Hailsham, a picturesque but autocratic boarding school in the British countryside, where Tommy is the target of bullies and Kathy tries to protect him. As they get older, their friendship inches toward romance — until Ruth moves in on Tommy, and Kathy retreats.

Although Hailsham seems posh, its students are not privileged. They're being raised to serve their betters — in a startling way that's revealed early in the film by a renegade teacher (Sally Hawkins). She's promptly replaced by the steely headmistress (Charlotte Rampling), but the truth she revealed hangs over her former students' lives.

The three kids are well played by Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purnell, who vanish after a half-hour, when Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow up to be, respectively, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley; upon graduating, these three meet other young adults of their class. They all discuss misleading rumors and pursue false leads, imagining how to alter their fates, and their attempts to be hopeful, subtly conveyed by Mulligan and the rest, are heartbreaking.

Ultimately, the pals drift apart, but Kathy takes a job that allows her — after a long break — to track down Ruth and Tommy. Their spirits raised by their reacquaintance, Kathy and Tommy dare to be optimistic again. But the best thing they can achieve is what Ruth already has: acceptance.

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan

Once they learn what's expected of them, Tommy (Garfield) and Kathy (Mulligan) struggle with the knowledge of what's to come -- and their place in a rigid scheme. Alex Bailey/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Bailey/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Never Let Me Go is, in part, a tale of a young love. The title comes from a song on a cassette tape that the prepubescent Tommy gives Kathy, and to which she listens obsessively. But what Kathy really craves (as the novel makes more clear) is an ordinary life, with an everyday family. In adulthood, she must settle for a pale semblance of that.

Born in Japan and raised in Britain, Ishiguro is fascinated by how people adapt to life in repressive societies. (It's no coincidence that three of his six novels turn on World War II.) Whether home is Never Let Me Go's ominous boarding school or the country estate of a British fascist (as in The Remains of the Day), the novelist's characters do what is expected of them. In the novel, Kathy's final statement is that she drove off "to wherever it was I was supposed to be."

Garland's script changes Kathy's resigned words to a few sententious lines about collective humanity. But that unfortunate coda — and Rachel Portman's strident score — are among the movie's few outright blunders. The story does unfold too quickly on screen, so that the mood of mingled horror and regret barely has time to take hold. Given the scenario's bleakness, however, few viewers would want the movie to be longer.

The director, whose only previous feature is the one-dimensionally creepy One Hour Photo, makes evocative use of gray-skied locations. There, too, he's being faithful to the book, which features numerous off-season visits to beaches and seaside towns. And such wintry places are among the reasons the movie is so persuasive. Despite its fanciful premise, Never Let Me Go looks and feels utterly real. (Recommended)

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