By: Addison Wylie
Mark Romanek’s last feature film was 2002’s One Hour Photo; a film that many stated was “hitchcockian” in it’s way to set up an eerie mood and in its method to study a sympathetic yet disturbing character suffering from both physical and emotional abuse. Now, almost a decade later, Romanek returns with Never Let Me Go where he continues to play with emotions but strays away from that uncomfortable tone One Hour Photo inhabited. Never Let Me Go not only leaves a great emotional impact but it features exceptional performances from both its younger and older casts as well as striking cinematography and music usage.
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go introduces its audience to an alternate reality. In this dystopian world, young children in the UK are brought to Hailsham; a boarding school where children, at first, are unknowingly raised to become organ donors at a more mature age. Kathy, played by Isobel Meikle-Small and then played by Carey Mulligan at an older age, is shy and follows the rules; sticking close with her friend Ruth, played by Ella Purnell who is then traded for Keira Knightley as the character grows older. The boys and the girls are pushed to socialize with their own genders but when Kathy sees Tommy, another young boy throwing a fit of rage after being selected as “the last pick” in a game, Kathy immediately wants to comfort him. Tommy, played by Charlie Rowe and then by Andrew Garfield, likes the company of Kathy and the two start to form a friendship. However, clashes occur when Ruth takes a liking towards Tommy and begins to hold his hand. it’s not long until Ruth and Tommy decide to take their relationship further. Kathy, who was starting to have adoring feelings for Tommy, decides that she won’t put up a fuss and the three children continue to be friends. As times moves on and the children grow up, they are moved to different bases so that they can mature and learn about the organ donor procedures in more detail; including a detail stating that after three operations, the donor usually passes away. However, when it’s learned that there may be a possible way to put off operations for couples who are truly in love, hopes are raised.
The strong performances carry the movie for the most part. Casting agent Kate Dowd has done a fabulous job pairing younger actors with the older counterparts. Both parties share emotional attributes as well as physical ones. It also helps that Dowd has selected an incredible ensemble made up of actors who don’t upstage anyone else in the company. Each and every cast member can make their character stand out on their own and the transition from the younger age to an older age is absolutely seamless. From watching the movie, it shows that Romanek has taken that necessary time to pull actors aside and work on line readings and reactions. During the first third of the film where we follow the characters as children, there is not one dropped beat found; the audience believes these children actually exist in this abstract environment. It’s nice to see how much the director and screenwriter Alex Garland respected the source material and understood that it’s essential to make the characters strong from the start because when the younger cast leaves the picture and the older actors take over, the audience still believes in each character portrayed. We still care about them, and we feel every single emotional punch the movie hands out.
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Romanek and Garland also have good eyes for detail and are able to fill this setting with lots of subtle sci-fi nods. While the film takes place in the past, we don’t see elaborate sets or advanced technology. We do see the dated furniture and styles and we hear the vintage music. But, by adding ways to show us how the children are kept like cattle in their settings and by showing us how they log their presence into a system, makes us believe that this outcome could’ve been possible. Romanek knows exactly how this film should look and feel and there is not a single doubt found in his directorial decisions. Same goes for Garland’s script. Garland is able to develop his characters carefully and without stress by utilizing a slow but suitable pace. Scenes where we see Kathy listening to music and emoting or a scene where the three friends are taken into a nearby diner for Cokes don’t give off a feeling of trying to pad the film. Each action is written and then directed meticulously. The story feels a tad rushed as the story wraps up but it still leaves an emotional impact. It’s a situation where the emotional resonance could’ve been prolonged and it might’ve tugged on the audience’s heartstrings a little bit more if done so but Garland knows when to walk away from the table and play it safe.
Never Let Me Go is among a list of movies released this year that will make one feel emotional distress but the end result is more than satisfying. With stellar performances that transfer well and smart screenwriting and directorial moves, Never Let Me Go is another vigorous move on Mark Romanek’s resume.