Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s award-winning novel starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. Previously known for directing the 2002 psychological thriller One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, this is certainly a departure from the norm for Romanek. Never Let Me Go is an anachronistic, dystopian drama set in a world where advances in science and technology have effectively eradicated disease and terminal illness, by means of cloning people and using them as organ donors for transplants. The film chronicles the phases of the lives of the main characters in multiple parts, from their younger years at the idyllic English boarding school of Hailsham into adulthood. Mulligan’s character Kathy H narrates the film in flashback form, as she reminisces about the time she has spent with Ruth and Tommy (played by Knightley and Garfield, respectively), and the love triangle that developed between them and dominated their relationship as they grew up.
Essentially a romantic drama with some minor elements of science-fiction, Never Let Me Go definitely captures the feel of Ishiguro’s novel and is a faithful adaptation, but at the film’s climax, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I couldn’t help but feel that Romanek could have done more with the source material as a film-maker. He has placed a great emphasis on understatement in his direction and in the cinematography, but it sadly comes off as somewhat flat and uninspired. He is quite literally going through the motions of adaptation, without taking any lengths or risks to allow Never Let Me Go to function as a work of cinema that is independent of Ishiguro’s novel. The scenery is picturesque, and the choice of locations will make it seem very stereotypically ‘British’ to foreign audiences, but this is double-edged sword, and unfortunately Never Let Me Go seems, at points, more like a period drama.
Like many literature-to-cinema adaptations, Never Let Me Go suffers due to its time constraints. The 103-minute runtime simply isn’t sufficient to fully explore and translate the intricacies and subtleties of Ishiguro’s prose. And, because of Romanek’s almost too understated direction, the film is forced to rely on its characters instead. But to Romanek’s credit, he has assembled a cast that is pitch-perfect. The (already award-winning) performances of the lead actors are what anchor the film and will keep audiences captivated for the its duration. Mulligan plays Kathy with a remarkable duality of both innocence and a deeply saddening sense of fatalistic awareness, and praise must go to Garfield, who delivers the stand-out performance of the film. After an excellent turn in The Social Network, his role as the naïve and blindly optimistic Tommy only serves to further demonstrate his serious talent as an up-and-coming actor. The two do overshadow Knightley’s performance somewhat, and while she is arguably the least talented of the three, her performance as the manipulative yet vulnerable Ruth does show that she is certainly starting to come into her own as an actress.
For viewers that are looking for a thoroughly character-driven experience that showcases the abilities of Britain’s young acting talent, whilst simultaneously capturing the main elements of Ishiguro’s novel – albeit, in a very superficial manner – then I can recommend Never Let Me Go to you. For those of you looking for an innovative and interesting piece of cinema, then I urge to you look elsewhere.