Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a picturesque and frustrating hybrid of Phillip K. Dick science fiction meets Merchant Ivory filmmaking.  Based on the highly acclaimed novel by Kazou Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), the film directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and written by Alex Garland (Sunshine; 28 Days Later)  tells a very-British tale, set in an alternative reality, one in which the human lifespan has elongated drastically, with bristling and pretty photography of the English county-side; it's one of the prettily admirable awards bait films that brims with respectability in every stroke.  Yet what may have come across thought-provoking or emotionally wrenching on the page has been nonchalantly transferred to screen simplified and a bit lifeless.  And what's left is a handful or very admirable performances, a teary, and overblown musical score, courtesy of Rachel Portman (a specialty of hers-- have a listen to The Cider House Rules music for further proof), and yet another refined piece of English filmmaking.

The maddening thing is that there's a few parts of Never Let Me Go, I actually don't want to let go from so easily.  The film starts, very promisingly, with a flashback to the childhoods of three friends-- Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley.)  Through Kathy's narration were drifted back when the three were kids, and students at Hailsham, a prim and proper English boarding school, on an intense and rich estate-- at the first glance the school looks like a grand mansion, or possibly an insane asylum-- props certainly go the art directors and set decorators.  Hailsham is headed by Miss Emily (played mightily by Charlotte Rampling), a mysterious headmistress who holds a dark secret for her students, while simultaneously preparing them.  There's something odd from the start-- what with the health regiment and the freaking wrist bands the students wear.  We learn fairly early on the picture (courtesy of humane teacher, Miss Lucy, played with effortless grace by Sally Hawkins, what the real story is.)

I won't reveal it, even though I've read many a critic write it all up before me, however it is a bit spooky and sends the early scenes to definitive chill.  After the terrific first third, Never Let Me Go appears to stop to a halt.  It's as if right after the premise is revealed, they filmmakers kind of stopped trying, feeling that was enough.  Simply put, it's not-- the story delves into a sappy love triangle between Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley, where not much actually happens, but still prettily photographed countryside and beaches are shot for maximum quality.  It's a shame for the truly provocative film Never Let Me Go could possibly have been, and also to the gifted performers clearly giving the material their all.  And most importantly to the audience, that at first is given a film that seeks to demand our attention, only to turn into one that appears to only want to manipulate our heartstrings.  Subtle melodrama doesn't exactly go together; then again neither do Phillip K. Dick and Merchant Ivory.

Mulligan definitely makes good of the promise of last year's An Education; in fact I think prefer her Kathy H. to Jenny.  She, along with Garfield and Knightley are adept at cobbling together young adults who are so thoroughly maladjusted due to their mission at Hailsham, and for long stretches of the film, very subtly and nimbly adjusting to their inevitable calling.  The inevitable is what pulls the film down, as simply put the film meanders at a rather dull speed with sharp climatic pings every so often.  It's then when the score swells waking us up to remind us to cry-- an emotional scene ahead, get the hankies out.  Had the music stopped, and film were perhaps better paced, all I would have needed for a good cry was a look at Mulligan's fragile face, or hearing Garfield's painful scream, or Knightley's guilty beach-side confession.

It's a weird status to recommend yet dismiss a film at the same time, but Never Let Me Go doesn't make it easy to love, nor hate.  Ambivalence would be a good way to describe it; ambivalent with a few wonderful characteristics.  C+

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