Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Never Let Me Go

Last year when I heard that the (allegedly) seminal novel Never Let Me Go was being adapted to film I was torn whether or not I should read it first. Generally, the trend is to always read the novel first because the book will never be a complete adaptation, but that’s the very reason that – where I can help it – I always ignore the literary version of any work until after I’ve seen the film. And yet, when the credits rolled for Never Let Me Go I couldn’t help but feel that I’d only been given a fraction of the story. I had that palpable of something – not quite disappointment, but dissatisfaction... Our story is set at Hailsham, a school, we know there’s something amiss from the way the children walk around almost as automatons – and it’s not because they’re “British”. We soon realise that the entire student population are clones of real people, the clones exist to provide body parts to their originals – and after a few operations they eventually die, before reaching middle age. Cloning is the sort of thing that’s become a bit too blasé to root a story, overexposure to the topic is probably the reason. The theme of cloning soon becomes secondary to a love triangle. Ruth, we discern immediately is not someone to root for – her child version has unusually quick eyes and a gait evocative of Briony Tallis. Kathy is our heroine, a seemingly pleasant girl who takes a liking to the school misfit Tommy. The two seem like a fine pair, until one day she happens upon Tommy and Ruth in an embrace...and we flash forward a decade or so later and the story continues.
There was a bad taste in my mouth for a good deal of the film’s second half, I’m not sure if Ishiguro’s novel or Alex Garland’s adaptation is to blame but to balance the already tired cloning premise against the increasingly tawdry love triangle deprives the film of all the poignancy that the actors keep trying to inject into it. And what’s exasperating is that the film has all the makings of being a good one. The costume designs are way less ornate and much more sensible that you’d anticipate, the art direction is inspired, its beautifully shot and the acting is fine...but all those parts does not a good film make. Garland, and director Mark Romanek, to their credit, frames the film beautifully (almost a bit too meticulously at times, truth be told). The three acts unfold fluidly – from Hailsham, to the cottages where the trio are in a sort of limbo in between adulthood and childhood and the final act where everything comes to a close. The unfortunate thing about his framing technique, though, is we end up seeing the film so distinctly as three acts and not one whole. The first act is fair, the second act is lovely and the third act is a disappointment. And the thing is, as good as the second act it epitomises the film’s fatal flaw – Ruth.

I sort of hate how the performances of the trio have become judged, Carey has been given the highest laurels by critics, the blogosphere has given their confidence to Garfield – but for me Keira Knightley emerges as the strongest of the trio, and it’s unfortunate that her performance won’t be able to go very far because she’s saddled with a character that’s so narrowly constricted it’s difficult to watch at times, even if she’s giving the film’s best performance. The film is already suffering from having a pedestrian love-story triangle and having Ruth as the impetus that prevents the affiliation between Tommy and Kathy from thriving. Thus, those last twenty minutes from the film where Ruth is expelled and Tommy and Kathy continue their journey feels violently flat. I’m all for a movie having us guessing until the end, but the “resolution” that the film reaches feels forced and makes so many of more interesting of the plot-points of the second act redundant. One of the film’s strongest sequences occurs as the gang accompanies the gang to a downtown location to seek out the woman who may be her original, the resulting revelation of whether or not the woman is Ruth’s original is handled beautifully – but in retrospect it all seems for naught because the issues raised from the confrontation are never addressed again.
There’s no denying that Never Let Me Go is a movie with promise, and there’s no doubt that something will pique your interest about it. Sally Hawkins, with about fifteen minutes of screen time, carves a multifaceted character that I kept hoping would reappear, the chemistry among the lead trio is splendid even if I’m not altogether convinced of the Carey/Andrew dynamic...but potential doesn’t make a good film. Technically superb, but maddeningly hollow (like another much feted 2010 entry) Never Let Me Go would have benefited from a more innovative script.

C+ (B-?)

4 comments:

okinawaassault said...

Thanks for praising Keira. I almost hesitate to do so. The 'winos and hobos' soliloquy has slight comic tones, despite its intentions. But she's the one with the most emotional output in the film.

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TomS said...

Andrew, this is a good review; you support your opinions well.
I wish you had found more to enjoy here...this was one of my favorite films of the year. The quiet sense of dread contrasted with the hopeful innocence of the characters worked for me. Seeing these characters do their best to behave normally in a world that would eventually deplete them was sad and oddly inspiring.