In the five years since its Booker prize nomination, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go has collected a cadre of devoted fans who were quietly reassured that despite the recruitment of an American director – Mark Romanek – to bring this literary favourite to the big screen, it would maintain its quintessential British flavour by casting three of the contemporary UK’s most promising acting talents, with an adaptation from local screenwriter Alex Garland and an indigenous shooting terrain of Sussex, Sommerset and Surrey. With these cultural qualities in mind, it was unsurprising to see Never Let Me Go selected as the opening gala feature of the 54th London Film Festival, as the curators sought a prestigious marriage between literary quality and native constitution, whilst it’s certainly not in the vein of afternoon tea or the reassuring thud of willow on leather Never Let Me Go does retain a native Anglican affectation, especially when one considers how the word English is a close lexographical cousin to the word anguish.
In the 1970’s, the young wards of Hailsham, an exclusive British boarding school, are beginning to discern the nature of
their unusual destinies and rural societal isolation. Urged to preserve their health at all costs by the headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) the children are gravelly warned that any incidence of abscontion from school grounds could result in lethal consequences. A pitying substitute teacher hints at their fate and is immediately dismissed from the idyllic retreat, and the pupils’ infrequent contact with outsider delivery men results in barely submerged scorn. Against this mysterious backdrop, a trio of students, including Ruth (a spirited Keira Knightley), Katy (a reflective Carey Mullign, who provides a lyrical voiceover) and the emotional Tommy (Andrew Garfield) begin to develop feelings for each other, a companionship that blossoms into a love triangle with Katy at its one unrequited vertisce. Decanted to a transitional base or ‘cottage’ upon the cusp of adulthood the graduates learn of their unavoidable path in life – a development I’m keeping spoiler intact – that activates ecumenical feelings of jealousy, love and betrayal that threaten to pull the three of them apart.
Sometimes it takes an intruder to scythe through the cultural baggage and see a culture afresh and although the ideals at the core of Never Let Me Go are universal, both Ishiguro (who in a sense revisits some of the same ground as his acclaimed The Remains Of The Day) and Romanek provide a deft commentary on the water-insulated, island isolated, faintly repressed English habitat. The child actors are excellent as the precursors to the three leads, you can readily accept them as the earlier incarnations of Ruth, Katy and Tommy as they wander through the ochre grays of Hallisham’s chilly halls, and Knightly, Garfield and particularly Mulligan are engaging, absorbing and heartbreaking throughout the remainder of the movie. Romanek takes a restrained and distanced approach to events; there is no flashy camera work, just studied dialogue scenes as he lets the piece grow organically from the script and performances. Perhaps the film’s most interesting conceit is the resigned acceptance with which the graduates of Halisham and similar institutions around the county seem to accept their fate – they seem so conditioned to their smothering destinies as if the very thought of flight or resistance is an utterly alien concept which would never even cross their minds. Indeed, the film takes a restrained approach to the sci-fi elements of the plot; there are no razor wire impediments, no guard dogs and no real sense of some invisible totalitarian regime guarding these precious commodities although some grim hints of deteriorating conditions for our players ancestors at Halisham and the like emerge as the film soldiers on.
Eagle eyed film fans may detect loose ties to the unusual English B-Movie The Damned by US exile Joseph Losey, in
that in both the forgotten 1963 curio and Never Let Me Go we find that isolated and quarantined children are being manipulated for an uncertain purpose. Shades of Blade Runner also abound, with a writhing reconnaissance of what it means to be human, Never Let Me Go foregrounds the notion that art and expression are a fundamental definition of the human experience. Although the plot skips through the decades before arriving at the 1990’s, the film retains a curious sense of the 1950’s throughout its life-cycle. Whilst the cars and fashions seem to subtly change, Romanek and his production designer feel no need to insert explanatory tools at the edge of the frame such as TV announcements or an era specific musical score, as the dour and forlorn British seaside resorts of the film’s final act provide a gloomy backdrop to the tale’s conclusion. Sombre and surprisingly moving, Never Let Me Go provides an elegant entrance to this year’s LFF.