Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Never Let Me Go': sensitive -- but remote

Mulligan, Knightely and Garfield in a rare happy moment.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, seemed an unlikely candidate for big-screen adaptation. That hasn’t stopped director Mark Romaneck, working from a screenplay by novelist Alex Garland, from attempting to bring Ishiguro’s carefully calibrated novel to the screen.

If ever a movie wanted to be taken seriously, it’s Never Let Me Go. Tastefully made, quietly presented and bathed in arty attitudes, Never Let Me Go look as if has been tailored for art-house consumption.

That's not necessarily a bad ambition, but too much of the time, the movie proceeds as if in a trance, unfolding in languid fashion while suggesting deeper meanings that, upon reflection, may not seem quite so deep.

The movie’s problem may be simple: Ishiguro told the story as a first person account from a 31-year-old woman named Kathy, played here by Carey Mulligan. Kathy recounted her days in school with strange precision and with ominous hints about what might be in store for her and her classmates.

Despite the intermittent use of an off-screen narration delivered by Mulligan, the story deadens when viewed from the outside, the only perspective an audience has. That’s why some of its most heartbreaking moments don’t drip with emotion.

I’m not sure that Never Let Me Go can be written about without spoilers. All I’ll say is that the three main characters are not facing a happy future. They’re also involved in a mild love triangle. Both Kathy and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are taken with Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Followed through stages of their lives, these three act like normal kids, then inquisitive teenagers and finally young adults. No matter how ordinary they seem, a sense of quiet strangeness surrounds them.

No faulting the performances, but Never Let Me Go winds up feeling as remote as it is finely honed. The more we learn, the more we wonder why none of the characters bothers to rail against his or her lot in life, something I didn’t feel while reading the novel. Maybe that’s the point Romaneck (One Hour Photo) is trying to make: He’s telling us about the way powerlessness is bred into people. And I suppose it’s true that most of us accept things the way they are. Our minds can be as gray as the sweaters worn by the students at Hailsham, the school where much of the story -- perhaps its best parts -- is set.

If you see Never Let Me go, you’ll realize that the movie has a sci-fi connection: Romaneck (like Ishiguro) probably wanted to play down the sci-fi aspects of his story and raise a philosophical question that can’t be stated here without spoiling more of the movie.

All I can say is that at the point at which my heart should have been breaking, I felt as I’d fallen into a kind of trance. The movie ultimately seems purposed to serve as an arty encouragement, a call to embrace life to the fullest because death looms for one and all.

It’s a lesson this artful, sensitive but emotionally reticent movie would have done well to heed.

No comments: