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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Here's a fairly long review that I just wrote for artslink.co.za on what will I'm sure go down as one of my favourite films of 2011. And though I do make this pretty clear in the article itself, I do want to reiterate here that it's best to go into Never Let Me Go with as little knowledge about it as possible. As such, unless you're already familiar with the subject of the film, it's probably better to read this review after seeing the film. But please do see it. It's a hell of a piece of work.

From Artslink.co.za (Originally posted 24 March 2011)


Before going any further, I need to post a slight spoiler warning. While I don't intend to give away much more than the film's basic premise, part of what is so wonderful about Never Let Me Go is the way its story unfolds and, though I don't want to take that away from anyone, it's impossible to discuss the film without revealing at least a few basic points about its plot. We're not exactly talking The Sixth Sense here or The Usual Suspects in terms of shocking plot twists but Never Let Me Go should ideally be seen free of any preconceptions. As such, let me just say that Never Let Me Go is an incredibly moving and intelligent piece of filmmaking that will almost undoubtedly end up in my top 10 movies of the year come December. Go and see it and then come back for the rest of the review.

To those who have seen the movie, already know what it's about, have read the book or simply don't care, on with the show...

Based on the acclaimed novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro – a novel that I have not, as of yet, read – Never Let Me Go is set in a world that is not very different from ours, save for one crucial difference: in the late 1950s, a medical breakthrough was achieved that all but eradicated disease and stretched the average human life span beyond a century. I will try and refrain from spoiling exactly what that breakthrough is but I'm sure anyone with even the faintest familiarity with science fiction will be able to figure it out for themselves.

With this fact set up in the opening minute of the film, we are quickly introduced to the film's narrator and central character, played by Carey Mulligan, before shifting towards what at first seems to be a typical English boarding school in the late 1970s. We are there introduced to the film's three main protagonists: Carey Mulligan's character, Kathy's, younger self and her soon-to-be first love, Tommy, and her friend and rival for Tommy's affections, Ruth. Just as we are being introduced to the love-triangle that would define their relationship over the next decade (and the rest of the film), it becomes more and more obvious that, unlike most schoolchildren, their future is not a bright one. The film then follows the three characters into young adulthood and into an impending and unavoidable fate.

The resulting story is one that is profoundly sad, chilling, romantic and thematically complex. It is a story that deals with love, the existence of the human soul, what it means to be human, the nature of mortality, fate, questionable medical ethics and the cost of progress. What's truly spectacular about the film, though, is the way it deals with these heady concepts. Opting for neither dramatically-uninvolving intellectualism, nor hysterical over-emoting, director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland keep their eye squarely on the relationship between our three protagonists. However much I was interested by and involved in the many themes and moral questions that the film subtly introduces, the greatest feat of the film was just how great a piece of storytelling it is.

It helps, of course, that the three main actors are so sensational in their roles. Keira Knightly has taken her acting up to a whole new level – a level that until now I was never sure she'd reach – as the destructive, pathetic and yet very sympathetic Ruth. Carey Mulligan has found in Kathy a worthy follow up to her role in An Education as the emotional core of the film. Not to be outdone by his stellar leading ladies, Andrew Garfield is even better here than he was in Social Network – and that's really saying something.

The performances by the main three actors, as well as a terrific supporting turns by Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling, are so good that they threaten to overshadow just how good Gardland's script and Romanek's direction are. This would be a mistake. However much the film relies on the actors to sell the emotion of the film, it is Romanek and Garland who’s seemingly effortless and masterly control of the material that makes the film the artistic success that it is.

The story isn't told through startlingly dramatic twists and turns but by unfolding at a leisurely and utterly organic pace, as it is allowed place to breathe and develop. This is a film that is engrossing not because of cheap theatrics but because of the humanity of the story. What's most incredible though is that the film achieves this humanity, this powerful emotional honesty, by being so unemotionally uninvolved in so much of its subject matter. There is a matter-of-fact detachment that comes with how these characters approach their unavoidable ends and a cold scientific approach to the way the world is changed by this medical breakthrough. It even substitutes the emotional charged word “death” with something that is far more neutral and coolly scientific: completing.

What all of this amounts to is that the film doesn't get its emotional resonance from the more artificial sources that films usually rely on: the direction and the writing of its creators – however excellent they may be - but by the emotion that is inherent in the story itself and in the characters and their relationships. It is admittedly helped along by a sweeping score but that never changes just how authentic the film's emotions feel. Nor does this coldness subtract from how powerful and thought-provoking the film's themes are. It's a pity then that the film's only major flaw from where I'm sitting comes from the narration, which occasionally does over-egg things a bit by spelling out what is already – and more subtly and effectively - implied.

Never Let Me Go clearly has its naysayers but unless the film is really inferior to the book, I can't imagine why. This is exactly the sort of film that – through its cinematography, soundtrack, acting, storytelling and, perhaps most importantly, its humanity - perfectly encapsulates everything that is great about cinema and is a gentle reminder that this century-plus-old artform is as vital as it ever was.

Don't miss it.

   

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