One should not ignore one's subconscious. The first thought we have when we awake should always be taken into consideration; since it comes before we are awake, it must be pressing, must have some sort of higher importance than we initially credit it with. Thus it was that upon awaking this morning, I knew I had to review Never Let Me Go today. Waking up with the titular Jane Monheit song playing on repeat in my head reminded me that the film still haunted me, almost two weeks after I'd seen it. The realization surprised me, since I don't recall being in total head-over-heels make-out love with the film...but then, not every love has to be the dangerous, passionate kind, does it?
Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the characters in Never Let Me Go are more aware of the inevitably of death than most of us, since there is a ticking clock. Naturally, questions of "What's it all about" and "Is there ever enough time" are raised and raised again throughout the narrative (again, like Benjamin Button), but except for a closing monologue, it's never bluntly. Indeed, one thing that impressed me about Never Let Me Go was how much credit director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland gave to their audience. Things aren't over-explained, and it's not to be murky or purposefully oblique. Rather, they expect you to keep up, to form thoughts on your own, to not have everything spoon-fed to you. Romanek's light touch, cinematographer Adam Kimmel's effective composition and Garland's subtle writing result in an adult drama that is beautiful, touching, and all too real.
The story revolves around three friends - quiet Kathy (Carey Mulligan), beautiful Ruth (Keira Knightley) and big-hearted Tommy - all classmates at Hailsham School, a place where clones are educated and raised in the years prior to their being compelled to "donate" their vital organs. Sally Hawkins has a too-brief role as the new teacher who feels compelled to tell the children the implications of what is being asked of them. Charlotte Rampling is stern and formidable as the headmistress who believes in the Future, in breeding perfection from anonymous, possibly lower-class, "originals". It is simple, really: Rampling believes in their destiny as clones, while Hawkins yearns for their destiny as human beings. Interesting, then, that while the protagonists also yearn for the latter, they submit to the former. This is not a huge spoiler: it's the first scene, in which Mulligan watches Garfield as he is about to undergo another surgery.
Mulligan and Garfield! Good heavens! To think I used to know them as "that girl with the glasses on Marple" and "that subpar Zack Morris"! How was I to know that I was actually watching the first steps of two phenomenal young actors, actors whose subsequent projects have me sitting up in anticipation! The way the two intertwine Kathy's practicalism and Tommy's optimism into two aspects of one personality is expertly done. The scene they share during a walk, where Kathy expects Tommy to confess his love and he can't...or won't...that hit me. I didn't cry or anything during Never Let Me Go, but that was one scene of many where I was in serious danger of starting (I'm getting better at controlling that, thank goodness). And Keira Knightley? She's always great. Her beauty has worked against her: no one ever seems to take her seriously, even though she's always solid in her performances. Her Ruth is angry, loving, jealous, conceited and insecure. That she can play all these at once is a mark of her mastery of the craft. Even when she sits quietly in a chair, even when she's shrouded in silhouette, you feel every bit of pain and loss in Ruth. Another subtle turn from an underappreciated young actress.
Young actress? But good Lord, it's the youngest of them that gives one of my favorite performances in the film: Ella Purnell, as the younger version of Knightley's character, is either amazingly well-directed or a scarily-brilliant actress. It could be both. Either way, hers was the one I kept coming back to when the credits rolled. Yes, yes, Izzy Meikle-Small and Charlie Rowe are also great and promising as the younger versions of Mulligan and Garfield, but Purnell! She even gets Knightley's clipped speech pattern down! She conveys those same emotional beats Knightley does, with equal precision and effectiveness. A glance, a smile, a scowl, a mere look as she stands in a doorway...and you get it.
Rachel Portman, two-time Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Original Score, offers another winner here. I didn't find it as overpowering as other reviewers, though this may be due to the iffy sound quality of my theater. Anyway, I found her score to be appropriately serene and reflective. It sounds like a memory, really, and I don't know how else to describe it. She gets it, though.
A sad experience? Yes. Life-affirming, perhaps? A little, I think. I come back to it frequently, as I've been doing with other modestly-executed films this year (Get Low, I'm looking at you). After much reflection, I have to say it: I think it's one of the year's best.