Going defiantly against the grain of a hyperbolic movie culture, "Never Let Me Go" is passionate about deliberation and restraint. Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, the A Team of young British acting talent, this is a moving and provocative film that initially unsettles, then disturbs and finally haunts you well into the night.
Based on the celebrated novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, "Never Let Me Go" is suffused with the kind of longing for what cannot be that is implicit in its title. It deals on one level with a love that yearns against profound odds to speak its name, but in a deeper sense it offers provoking thoughts about what it means to be human, to have a life at all, and the kinds of unforgivable things that are done to preserve that at all costs.
If this sounds mysterious, it is meant to, for if "Never Let Me Go" is to be most effective, the heart of its story has to reveal itself as gradually and unhurriedly as possible. The film, to be frank, isn't as patient as the book and, understandably worried about the attention span of movie audiences, offers more hints along the way than the novel did, but it still takes its time to divulge what it's about.
Mark Romanek, who directed from a script by novelist Alex Garland, has a background — music videos, TV spots, the morose Robin Williams feature "One Hour Photo" — that would not seem to make him an ideal fit for this kind of nuanced material. But he has brought a great sureness and confidence to the project, turning out a film where the look of "Masterpiece Theatre" classicism is blended with an unmistakable but indefinable edge.
After choosing to start the film with an opening card that informs us that we are in a kind of alternate reality, a world that is both our world in the recent past and not our world, "Never Let Me Go" conveys the strong feeling that something is going on but refuses to tell us what it is.
As it turns out, "Never Let Me Go's" determination to hold onto the secret as long as it can is a kind of misdirection. That mystery is not what the film is about at all, only its setting. What finally stays with us is the quiet drama surrounding unfulfillable yearnings that are the byproducts of life as it is lived there.
"Never Let Me Go's" narrator introduces herself as Kathy H (Mulligan), someone who's been "a carer" for nine years. Kathy talks with satisfaction about her work without really telling us what it is. Very soon the film flashes back to years earlier, when a 12-year-old version of herself (Isobel Meikle-Small) was a student at a classic English boarding school called Hailsham.
Though Hailsham (a name with a Dickensian echo) looks like the kind of place Mr. Chips would be at home, it has a peculiar feeling. Headmistress Miss Emily (a crackling good Charlotte Rampling) is very strict about laying down the law, about making sure the residents watch their health, don't leave the premises and understand that "students of Hailsham are special."
Since they are on the very cusp of teenagerdom, Kathy, her best friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell), and handsome young Tommy (Charlie Rowe) are more concerned with each other than what adults might be saying, even when a new teacher called Miss Lucy ( Sally Hawkins) clues them in on the reality of their lives.
After they become adults, the fraught relationship between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy becomes the focus, and is helped greatly by the expert acting of Mulligan, Knightley as the grown-up Ruth and Garfield as grown-up Tommy.
Knightley is always convincing as the manipulative Ruth, and Garfield, who stood out in the first part of the "Red Riding" trilogy and is slated to be the next movie Spider-Man, is even better as the pliable, docile Tommy. But the reason "Never Let Me Go" succeeds as well as it does is Mulligan's work as Kathy.
Though Mulligan has not lacked for impressive roles — her Jenny in "An Education" received an Oscar nomination — the persuasive underplaying of her acting here exceeds anything she has previously done. There is a haunting, melancholy aspect to her performance, a wistful pride in the evanescent nature of Kathy's work that perfectly expresses the sense of people missing out on something inexpressible that is at the center of the film as well as Ishiguro's book.
Although "Never Let Me Go's" extreme restraint will not please everyone, Garland's screenplay actually increases the book's romantic quotient, including making a change in the backstory of the song — persuasively sung by Jane Monheit — that gives the film its title. Still it's the power of Ishiguro's original conception that finally holds us, a view of life from the other side of the looking glass that comments powerfully on our situation as well.