Romanek’s achingly sad sci-fi done right

By Drew Hunt

In his second feature film, Mark Romanek continued to prove he’s adept in deception. His debut effort, “One Hour Photo” (notable for its exploration of Hitchcockian themes of voyeurism and obsession, as well as its deft use of Robin Williams), appeared creepy on the surface but had audiences stewing in sentimentality once the end credits started rolling.

His newest movie, “Never Let Me Go,” which is adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, treads similar ground, albeit in a more humanistic fashion.

The film centers on the lives of three friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth—Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively—who grow up together while attending a boarding school called Hailsham.

The film is set in a world alternate to our own, where all terminal illnesses have been eradicated thanks to an evolutionary advancement. The Hailsham children are essentially harvested for their vital organs, which are genetically altered to ensure their high quality. When they reach college age, each will undergo a series of surgeries where their organs are systematically removed, effectively killing them.

What sounds like convoluted science fiction is in fact a kind of melodramatic exploration. Despite the tacit knowledge of their eventual demise, the children develop emblematic personalities akin to young adulthood—they’re jealous, lustful and gossipy. They develop skills—they can paint and sing. They fall in love. They are

fully-formed people.

Persnickety individualism may prevent some viewers from seeing the greater issues presented in the film, as Romanek doesn’t provide any answers as to why or how this practice came to fruition.

However, a keen viewer will realize broad answers concerning the plot are superfluous, given the film’s nature. “Never Let Me Go” is about the consciousness of death and the ominous, yet prevalent ways it relates to our lives. In the way we accept our fate, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth accept theirs. Uncertainty is part of it.

It’s a tricky path to follow. Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland risk a lot by attempting to adapt the book (which was selected by Time magazine as the greatest novel of the decade). The novel’s vagueness is tolerable, thanks to the flowing narrative provided by Kathy. Her words are poignant and enduring, and Romanek’s attempt to translate the same evocative feel to the screen is mostly effective.

Although occasionally bland on the surface, the tone of “Never Let Me Go” is often cerebral. It’s a quietly haunting film, and like “One Hour Photo,” it has a gracefulness that belies a heavy subject matter. It reveals itself gradually, taking its time where similar films become frenetic.

Still, the film is a thriller of sorts—but not in a visceral sense. There’s a feeling of dread, but it’s of a ponderous nature.

The principal cast of Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley provide adequate pathos and keep the film grounded in naturalism. Mulligan, in particular, shines, and her performance is one of the biggest reasons the film succeeds. Her melancholy demeanor expresses a kind of longing implicit in all people, and Romanek successfully cultivates another noteworthy performance out of the young actress.

Ultimately, “Never Let Me Go” is about as successful as an adaptation can be because the film stands on its own merit. Ishiguro served as one of the film’s producers, an obvious blessing on his behalf.