"The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952
Doctors could now cure the previous incurable
By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years"
And so begins Never Let Me Go, a downbeat adaptation of a book I've never had the pleasure of reading by Kazuo Ishiguro. This film is an exercise in understatement; rarely have I seen a film that's so emotional and yet avoids bravado and manages to depict these emotions in such a gentle way. This is no straight-forward drama and there's an unconventional element to the story that I feel would be best to keep secret from the potential viewer. Unfortunately, it's difficult to discuss/critique the film without disclosing that element. With that said, the secret comes out very early into the movie so don't feel that I'm spoiling anything for you.
Besides a brief opening scene, the film opens in 1978 at a boarding school called Hailsham. While headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) gives her daily announcement to the students, it becomes clear that Hailsham is not the typical boarding school. The health of the students is greatly important and the students' existence is a sheltered one, completely cut off from the world outside the boundaries of the school. Students are at the age where romantic ideals begin to blossom and young Kathy H. takes a liking to a boy named Tommy. Those wondering what the purpose of Hailsham is don't have to wait very long as a disenchanted guardian named Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) soon enlightens them that their purpose is to grow up and donate their vital organs before their "short-life" will be completed. As this chapter of the film comes to a close, Kathy watches her friend Ruth and Tommy grow close. These childhood scenes are handled with great sentiment, but also with great austerity.
The next two segments take place in 1985 and then 1994, where Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield take on the roles of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. This second part takes place at The Cottages, where the three Hailsham students have their first contact with the outside world and their sexual awareness comes to full fruition. It's here that we learn a bit more about the students' purpose, as well as watch some characters struggle with their already pre-determined fate. "Completion," the third part of the film is arguably the most tragic where hope and optimism leads to sad acceptance.
Despite being only 103 minutes, Never Let Me Go manages to tell a pretty full story and show characters completely evolve from naïve children to naïve, but optimistic adults. Watching these characters evolve is heartbreaking and the way the film burrows into your emotional center with such quiet nuance is astounding. Rarely do elements fall together so perfectly in a film that they completely immerse you in what you're watching and in it's own a soft, sad way this film absolutely casts a spell. This is not a film that will appeal to a wide audience, but I personally found it to be quite masterful.
The film's score by Rachel Portman is one of the most effective musical scores I've heard in 2010. The music evokes such sadness it becomes a key element to the success of the film as a whole. The picturesque photography by cinematographer Adam Kimmel is poetic and beautiful, static yet graceful and adds an additional level of poignancy that the screenwriter could not have foreseen.
As for acting, we get to watch three very promising young actors do some wonderful work. The most surprising is Keira Knightley who gives such an honest portrayal I forgot I was watching Knightley. Ditching any glamor or sharp-tongued wit, she plays the insecure, jealous, and frightened Ruth marvelously. Garfield continues to establish himself as one of the strongest up-and-coming actors at work today. He gets such pathos out of his mix of sadness and optimism; Watch Garfield's face as he learns the truth about deferrals and the way his expression quietly goes from hopefulness to helplessness. Contrast this with his acclaimed performance in The Social Network and you have an actor building an impressive body of work. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan continues to prove that she is something special and refreshing in the film industry. What an elegant, immensely talented actress she is and her work here is brilliant. Mulligan is a true actress, something Hollywood is lacking these days and her performance here is so powerful, yet completely low-key.
There is something so brave and unexpected about taking a premise rooted in science-fiction and, in doing so, making a deeply moving human drama and a profound, meditative statement on life, death, and humanity. Again, I've never read the book but I wonder if the book is as much of an emotional journey as the film. I would never call this film "uplifting," but the tragic, beautiful ending is one of the most life-affirming endings of 2010.
Never Let Me Go had much more of an impact the second time I watched it. It seemed more heartbreaking, more poignant, more powerful, and more beautiful than it did the first time. It's a deeply emotional viewing experience that gripped my emotions in a way few films have. While highly praised by some critics, it's been largely overshadowed by other films of 2010. Never Let Me Go is as elegant, thought-provoking, and moving as films can get. It's undoubtedly one of the best films of 2010.