The Good Life

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art House Salad: NEVER LET ME GO

Movie Review: “Never Let Me Go”
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Death has bothered me greatly since childhood. I prefer not to think about it much, let alone write about it. Yet, here we are. “Never Let Me Go” is a movie about lifespan relativity – a spooky, subtly sci-fi reminder that all of us, whether we be organ donors fated to perish in our 20s or lingerers bound for 100, will reach our expiration date, or, as the film calls it, “completion.” The universal notion of having to accept this fact regardless of your circumstances or allotted time on Earth resonates long before a key character finally acknowledges it out loud, and it's what gives the otherwise dispassionate proceedings an unsentimental humanity and sense of purpose.

I'm going to keep plot details to a minimum, not so much to avoid spoilers (it's rather easy gather what's happening and what's going to happen), but to preserve the austere, yet elegant, manner in which things are explained. Movie fans will get all the gist they need when I say that “Never Let Me Go” is the highbrow, art-house answer to Michael Bay's “The Island.” Based on the highly acclaimed 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), it features three principal characters, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), who grow up together at Hailsham, an English boarding school that shelters its students in a sort of Ivy League bubble for reasons beyond their initial comprehension. As time passes, feeling and truths emerge for the lead trio, but we never really leave their microcosm; it simply expands.

The film's most haunting aspect is how willfully the characters accept their collective destiny, as they know of nothing else. With his story, Ishiguro doesn't take an explicitly supernatural approach the way another writer might have. He highlights how humans are raised to accept what they are taught, and seems to ask, when you are what you are, what else can you be? Again – relativity. Though born into what most will immediately see as a horrific situation, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, we come to realize, aren't so unlike the rest of us.

Unfortunately, although it is chiefly responsible for the film's ability to burrow under your skin, the overall passivity and somberness of the characters and tone hamper how it's received. Director Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) finds a sophisticated, frozen-in-time aesthetic for this British drama (it's set in a nondescript, alt version of the '70s, '80s and '90s), and the three young actors each duly deliver what's asked of them, but from the muted palette to the emotional squelching, “Never Let Me Go” leaves you feeling no intense reaction beyond the inevitable identification with its mortal ponderings. And the insular world of the film, while also lending itself to the characters' eerie lack of existential objections, forbids the possibility of say, a different perspective, even the slight presence of which could have provided the kind of dramatic gut-punch that never comes. The movie tiptoes to its own inevitable completion, and it's a poetic one, but the experience feels nevertheless incomplete.

*“Never Let Me Go” is now playing at the County Theater in Doylestown.



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