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London Film Festival Review: Never Let Me Go

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This adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go instilled in me a great desire to pick up the book as soon as possible. Unfortunately this was not down to the film being especially accomplished, but because much of my time in the cinema was spent thinking how amazing the story's central conceit would be with the added layer of character intimacy that literary works offer over their cinematic adaptations. The three leads (Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, pictured above) do admirable work in making us empathise with their characters, yet this is a story where we need to understand their most intimate thoughts and sentiments. Screenwriter Alex Garland's use of on-the-nose voiceover makes for a cumbersome substitute.

This adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go instilled in me a great desire to pick up the book as soon as possible. Unfortunately this was not down to the film being especially accomplished, but because much of my time in the cinema was spent thinking how amazing the story's central conceit would be with the added layer of character intimacy that literary works offer over their cinematic adaptations. The three leads (Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, pictured above) do admirable work in making us empathise with their characters, yet this is a story where we need to understand their most intimate thoughts and sentiments. Screenwriter Alex Garland's use of on-the-nose voiceover makes for a cumbersome substitute.{{page_break}}

We join the story at a very old-fashioned English boarding school, overrun with attractive children burdened by a fear of challenging authority or straying outside the grounds. Despite the opening declaration that the film is set across the final decades of the 20th Century, this school seems a more natural fit for a wartime Enid Blyton novel with its flaking walls, creaky wooden desks and drab living conditions. It's painfully anachronistic, yet coincidentally the vision of old England that has proven most popular with foreign audiences.

The film makes a big deal of its sheer Englishness. Yet it's an Englishness for and by people who have little understanding of what that means, or what makes it special. It's less authentic scene-setting, more fetishisation: Romanek's camera lingers in lustful close-up on every woollen sweater, splintered wooden beam and dilapidated ornate garden.

This is never more evident than in the scenes where characters wander thoughtfully through the countryside. It's an attractive setting, but not in the way that Romanek seems to want it to be: it is an environment whose true beauty emerges over time as you grow old with it, its overgrown footpaths and tree roots digging through history a lifelong friend and teacher rather than quick spectacular fling. From that perspective it echoes one of the film's main themes, but this link seems to have passed entirely over Romanek's head. Instead, the agrestic setting becomes a predictable symbol of his characters' simple but meaningful existences.

The lack of subtlety extends to every corner of the film. The brilliance of Ishiguro's story would be best treated by leaving it to viewers to fill in the gaps with interpretations through which they could come to better understand their own lives. Garland and his crew instead persistently try and force through emotional turmoil and meaning where they should emerge naturally. Rachel Portman's score is obvious and intrusive, bringing out the slow piano for every thoughtful outdoor excursion and tragic violin wailing like a siren at every sentimental beat, undermining the good work put in by the actors. Alex Garland's dialogue is not quite so painful, but denies the characters distinctive voices or personalities. Cathy is caring but vulnerable, Tommy naïve and Ruth envious and manipulative, but little beyond those five basic adjectives. For a story whose core treatise ruminates on the things that define a life, the characters sound identical and act only in service of reaching a narrative conclusion rather than growing as individuals. When the film's theme is summarised patronisingly in the final lines, the scale of Garland's failure to elevate his work to the standards required by Ishiguro's themes is never clearer.

The cast is what keeps the film afloat, each putting in career best performances. Carey Mulligan once again proves her talent for easing her way into audiences' affections through allowing herself to sink fully into the character. Even as her star rises, there is no point at which you are watching Carey Mulligan as Cathy H. rather than Cathy H. herself. Garfield and Knightley both give elegant performances, but never throw off the shackles of their characters being acted rather than inhabited.

It would be churlish not to give them due credit though, with both giving fine shows of their talent. Her many critics will no doubt point to Knightley again recycling the same old expressions and while true to an extent, she has learnt to convey the nuances of character through small changes in manner, posture and voice. In a twist on her wronged woman role from Atonement, her Ruth shifts from being jealous and manipulative in younger years to seeing everything she previously believed in torn away with age. Knightley portrays this through gentle tweaks bringing out her character's changing sensibilities while staying recognisably the same person. Garfield's character is drawn broadest of the three, but takes every opportunity to bring out hidden depths. The young actors who introduce us to the characters at school also deserve celebration too for making an affecting first impression and selling the key narrative revelation without overplaying the moment. Izzy Meikle-Small as the young Cathy H. is especially superb casting not only for her talent, but also  a startling resemblance to Carey Mulligan.

Despite exceptional work from the actors and the brilliance of Kazuo Ishiguro's narrative conceit, Never Let Me Go is an adaptation too surface to convey the intimacy required to do the story justice, exemplifying the fallacy of the expectation that the depths of a celebrated novel will translate naturally to the big screen. Set in a phony simulacrum of England populated by characters who seem to exist only as far as the story needs them, Romanek and Garland want to offer audiences a moving contemplation on identity and the nature of the soul, but fail to find either in their own film.

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Never Let Me Go reviewed by Xander Markham

6

ALL RIGHT

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy it a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.
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Xander Markham
Xander MarkhamAssociate Editor   gamer profile

Living just outside London, I represent Flixist’s entire UK branch. My film obsession manifested itself during a childhood spent watching Bond movies, Italian Westerns and all things samurai. I... more + disclosures


 


 


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