The way in which I discovered the story to Never Let Me Go is typical to our cultural age. Last year I discovered a trailer which hinted at a marvellously moving tale, stuffed with fine acting, a soaring soundtrack and an intriguing premise. Then there was a second trailer, less gripping and more melancholy than the first, which turned out to more accurately reflect the film. Haunted and beguiled by the tremendous first snippet though, I sought out the novel and determined to read it before the film’s release in 2011.
It was the first time I’d read a book by Kazuo Ishiguro and I’ve since become a fan. It was satisfying to discover the subtle, incredibly English tone of the book so well mirrored in that first trailer. It was rewarding too to delve deep into the joys of Ishiguro’s fabulously realised narrator Kathy H, so attractively played in that teaser by Carey Mulligan. Ultimately the book felt so real, raw and affecting, and the writing was so beautiful, that my allegiances switched devotedly to the original work, despite that snapshot of film hooking me in the first place. However in our modern world of innumerable choice, adaptation and interpretation, I realise the futility of being a snob about such things. Just because I’d embraced the true complexity of the original work, did not diminish the potential power of the film.
I say complexity, but the real merit of the novel was its immense simplicity. It’s perhaps this that the film struggles to adequately capture. Cinema usually requires more than the touchingly mundane. I’ve commented before on my blog that the adaptation would struggle to balance the different chronological segments of the novel. Reading it leaves you with a vivid sense of childhood nostalgia and an unquestionable understanding of the importance of youth and school to Kathy H and the other main characters, Tommy and Ruth. The sinisterly picturesque boarding school of Hailsham is clearly of paramount importance to the characters in the latter stages of the film too, but it was not as vibrantly established earlier on.
That said the filmmakers do a wonderfully thorough job of making the childhood scenes convincing. The younger incarnations of Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in particular look remarkably spot-on. More importantly all the key performances from the younger actors are excellent. Ella Purnell, as the young Ruth, even gives a far superior performance to Hollywood starlet Knightley as the grown up. If you’ve read the novel you’ll appreciate the way Purnell better captures Ruth’s good and bad sides, whereas Knightley seems rather one dimensional in her portrayal of Ruth as predominantly vindictive. If you haven’t read the book you’ll still see the Pirates of the Caribbean star’s turn as the weakest of the three leads.
Mulligan continues to impress. She stole the show in what’s widely hailed as the best modern Doctor Who episode, Blink, and has gone from strength to strength ever since, breaking through internationally with her performance in An Education. Here she does a wonderful job with some tricky bits of voiceover. As a general rule, voiceover as a story telling device can either be atrociously bad or astoundingly good. Mulligan’s efforts to replicate the tone of melancholic memory from the first person narration of the book ensure that in Never Let Me Go, voiceover tends to tread closer to the positive end of the spectrum.
She’s also regularly fabulous in her scenes with Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Her pained expressions and displays of emotional restraint come just about as close as possible to the brilliant subtlety and ambiguities of the novel. She’s as likeable as Kathy H should be. Garfield also adds another respectable notch to his CV, coping admirably with Tommy’s notorious rages and his place at the centre of a slow burning, heart wrenching love triangle. Despite Knightley giving the least classy and layered performance, she also doesn’t do a bad job. In many ways she may have been limited by a necessarily narrow interpretation of Ruth’s character in the book and a lack of time for her character to redeem herself in hospital scenes with Kathy on screen, as she does on the page.
The book was finely crafted, composed and executed, to produce a tender, touching and intelligent final product. To an extent the film is also brought to life with bags of quality. There are some luscious shots from director Mark Romanek that conjure feelings of nostalgia; windswept British landscapes and colourful toys abandoned in the summery grass. It’s for the most part perfectly acted, with good contribtutions from Charlotte Rampling as Miss Emily and Sally Hawkins as Miss Lucy alongside the leads. In general the whole film is full of evocative and eerie period detail, given the slightly sci-fi premise.
On the page the fact that there was a mere whiff of sci-fi, that didn’t actually lead to some groundbreaking revelation, was perhaps a minor disappointment. But in a way it allowed for a more pure distillation of relationships, love and the human capacity (or perhaps a very British ability) to cope with suffering and endure with dignity, rather than run away. The film was always going to require some more direct references to the purpose of Hailsham and its children. And because there is no huge, thriller like conspiracy, Never Let Me Go will feel a letdown to most and unbelievably light on plot and originality. There’s simply never a sufficient peak to the drama, just a constant tasteful simmering of emotion.
It certainly would have been a mistake for Alex Garland’s script to transform hidden truths, memories and secrets into contorted plot twists. Part of Never Let Me Go’s refreshing realism, maturity and originality is its subdued approach. But it also led to people leaving the cinema in front of me bemoaning the whole idea of the story as weak. Somehow the film needed something more and if the novel had one fault it was its lack of a satisfying, big reveal. The poignancy of the writing meant the lack of drama mattered less that it does on film.
However just because Never Let Me Go is an inferior adaptation with a fatal flaw and is often a bit dull, does not make it bad. Some scenes really stand out with every little ingredient almost perfect. It’s undoubtedly superbly made. Even those cinemagoers leaving with disappointments around me were singing the praises enthusiastically of the acting talent on show. It’s a mystery to me how the actors at least did not get some awards season nominations for this film. And as a fan of the book it’s disappointing the film failed to capture its distinctive essence and live up to the intoxicating promise of earlier trailers. I guess the only real way to judge Never Let Me Go, whether you know the story or not, is to see it yourself. Personally for its refusal to be bombastic and sensational alone it’s a worthwhile watch.