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Movie Review: Never Let Me Go

Whispering aloud but shouting inside
Never Let Me Go
Genres: Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 104 min
Release Date: 2010-09-15
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

“Never” is so short a time.

For the sequestered students in “Never Let Me Go,” the span when they vow never to be separated is circumscribed by their lives, which are pre-ordained to be brief.

But is it that much longer for the rest of us, though we live three times their allotment? Do the extra years matter if we fill them with unproductive behavior and shallow emotional attachments?

Those are the questions posed by this spare, wrenching movie, which writer Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek have adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Garland usually works for the more flamboyant Danny Boyle; he wrote the novel “The Beach” and scripts for “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” But Ishiguro, the British writer known for “The Remains of the Day,” builds to a quiet emotional upheaval through an accumulation of small, telling incidents, and that’s what this movie does.

A mild spoiler/revelation is inevitable here, though you’ll learn it in the first 20 minutes of the film, and I can’t write a thorough review without it.

“Never” takes place in an alternate universe much like our own, where cloning was invented in the 1950s; within 20 years, children are beginning to be raised as organ donors. We meet three at a secluded school: gentle Kathy, much-teased Tommy and flirty Ruth. The headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) has told them almost nothing about the outside world, but a new teacher (Sally Hawkins) reveals the hard truth: They will donate organs as long as their bodies function, then “complete” (as death is referred to in this situation).

We spend most of our time with the adult trio, played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. Their friendships, loves and sexual connections wax and wane under the pitiless shadow of death; even becoming a “carer,” someone who tends to donors’ needs, merely delays the inevitable cruel end.

Literalists will chafe here. Why don’t the victims run away, even if they end up begging on the streets of London? Why don’t they commit suicide or crimes as acts of personal liberation or protest?

The movie hints at answers. They have had microchips implanted that make them instantly identifiable; they have no skills, job training or access to money; they can barely order coffee in a restaurant without revealing their insularity. More to the point, perhaps, they weren’t raised to think for themselves. Drawing a parallel with slavery may not be wholly appropriate. But like many slaves, they were born into their fate, knew no alternatives and could never imagine themselves as free.

Three young actors – Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purnell – perfectly pave the way for the adults. Knightley is always competent, but the other two carry the emotional weight.

Garfield, now hot because of “The Social Network,” can make shyness and suppressed anger attractive; as he matures from a gawky teen to a young man en route to death, he makes us root for the miracle that could save him.

Anyone who saw the Oscar-nominated Mulligan in “An Education” knows what she can do. If you didn’t, you’re in for the kind of quietly revelatory acting that portends a brilliant career.

Romanek, who hasn’t made a feature since “One Hour Photo” in 2002, is the lone American on this team. Yet he immerses us in a very British society where it seems natural to accept a fate determined by authority figures, where it’s more appropriate to communicate emotion in whispers than outbursts. That world may be closer to our own than we’d like to think.

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10/7/2010 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

‘Never Let Me Go’ takes us into the minds and hearts of British teens whose loves can barely take wing.

(Full review)
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