After eight years, Mark Romanek has directed another feature film, Never Let Me Go. Romanek has delivered on all the promise of his first film, One Hour Photo, and created a film that is utterly remarkable.
Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth meet each other as students at Hailsham, an English boarding school governed by strict rules. Their lives become intertwined as they move beyond the walls of Hailsham and from adolescence to adulthood. The film is a period piece love story that also has a bit of sci-fi mixed in. While the film takes place in the past, it is an alternate past where different technological breakthroughs were discovered. I don’t want to give away any more than that. This film is far too interesting to damage with too much synopsis.
The performances in Never Let Me Go are stunning. Each and every single one of them. Isobel Meikle-Small is amazing as the young Kathy. It is surprising to see an actress so young give a performance that is so subtle and reserved. As the young Tommy, Charlie Rowe brings a wonderful vulnerability to the character. You can see the emotions surging around in him as his body tenses or he throws open his arms and screams. Ella Purnell’s performance as the young Ruth shines through her eyes, which flash intrigue, understanding, and plotting, and can even carry an edge of cruelty at times. Furthermore, it is impressive to see these performances carry over from the children into their adult counterparts.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Kathy is still subtle and reserved but now carries a weight of regret that you can read on her face. At times, she lets go of her control and expresses her anger and frustration, but still tactfully and succinctly. This a woman that would rather carry her burdens alone so that others may be happy, a woman that can bear great weight placed on her shoulders. She seems to have a firmer grasp on the world than those that have spent more time in it.
Andrew Garfield will break your heart in this film. The timid boy of Tommy still exists, as he is unsure whether he can accompany Kathy on a walk- even after having been her friend for ten years. And when he is given permission to join, bounces down the road, stepping in puddles, and laughing. He’s someone that lives with his heart, and sometimes his head can take a moment to catch up. But unlike when he was a boy, Tommy has learned to control emotions so that they don’t come bursting out. But Garfield shows these emotions bubbling below the surface with a look out of the corner of his eye, or the way his shoulders tense, or the slight quiver in his lips as he tries to find the words to express himself. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Keira Knightley plays the older Ruth. She brings a painful beauty to the role. Ruth is a woman that desperately wants to be more than she is. She claims to know more about the world than she does and imitates television to fit in with those around her. It is only when things come crashing down on her, that she can admit to herself what she truly is and accept the pain that she has caused. Knightley has such wonderfully expressive eyes that you can actually see the pain and longing and venom and anger swimming around in them.
The work by cinematographer Adam Kimmel is absolutely beautiful in this film. There is such beauty captured in the landscape or on a red ball laying in the wet grass or a lone boat beached on the sand. But the whole film has a level of desaturation that doesn’t mar the beauty but instead creates a fleeting nature to it. It is temporary and for that reason more beautiful.
Also remarkable is Rachel Portman’s score. This score may be one of the most painful and beautiful scores I have ever heard. Every moment is perfectly chosen, grounding the emotion in scenes in a way that work in concert with the performances and the cinematography. While the score can carry great emotion, it never becomes overpowering – the score doesn’t tell you what emotion to feel, rather it lets you feel your own, regardless of how painful or beautiful it may be.
All of these elements – the performances, cinematography, and score – create a very interesting and unique tone. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film like it. Every moment is at once, beautiful, poignant, and tragic. Yet in those same moments there is such a level of acceptance and matter-of-factness that a sense of tranquility is established. After several days of thought, the best word I can use to describe the tone is stoic, but even that word falls short. Ultimately, the incredibly fascinating tone of this movie is something unto itself.
Romanek has crafted a beautiful, subtle, tragic film that I can find no fault in. Never Let Me Go is the most poetic film I have ever seen. Every element works in concert with each other, enhancing and empowering – they are all brushstrokes in a wonderful painting. This film is a masterpiece.