Never Let Me Go is an elegant, restrained film, marked by lush visuals and a romantic and swoopy Rachel Portman score and characters who speak in clipped British accents and tend to keep calm and carry on. But don't be fooled-- though it is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is no average English period drama, but an exploration of love and loss and the brief beauty of life with a sci-fi twist. It's perhaps a more admirable movie than a lovable one, but director Mark Romanek has so faithfully adapted Ishiguro's novel with such grace that it's moving in its own quiet way.
The main thing lost in translation from book to screen is the substantial section of the novel that took place at Hailsham, an idyllic British boarding school where children are taught to fear the outside world, to always obey instructions, and to take meticulous care of their bodies. While Ishiguro held on to the reveal much longer in his book, writer Alex Garland gets right to it-- as explained by an idealistic young teacher (Sally Hawkins), essentially a cameo) these children will grow up to donate their organs, sometime in their mid-20s, as many as four times before dying. Despite this, though, they are really just kids-- the extraordinarily cast young actors go through the usual crushes, torments and disappointments of childhood that are familiar to all of us, rooting the audience immediately in this sci-fi story that's not really so far-fetched.
Even by the age of 18, when they leave Hailsham and spend some idyllic college-esque years playing house in a place called The Cottages, these children do little more than wistfully regret their cruel fate. Narrator Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is the silent suffering type, watching for many pained years as flighty and glamorous best friend Ruth (Keira Knightley) takes up with the shy, almost painfully restrained Tommy (Andrew Garfield), even though we see that Kathy is a much better match for him. There is a version of this story in which the three kids fight their fates, try to escape and establish their value as humans, not organ farms, but that's not the one Ishiguro or anyone else here is telling. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have no choice, as we do, but to live in the world they're given, and their struggles are the same that all humans undergo, but on a tragically truncated schedule.
With flashback narration from Kathy throughout, Never Let Me Go is a supremely nostalgic and melancholy film, and though Romanek impressively sustains that mood throughout, it also can weigh things down. We rarely see Kathy, Tommy and Ruth laugh together once they're adults, and though they are supposedly avoiding the truth about their fates, so many of their conversations revolve around it one way or another. The necessities of a 100-minute running time remove much of the world-building texture of Ishiguro's novel, and though Romanek and his extraordinary production team make up for it often, the three central characters still emerge more as victimized ciphers than the flesh and blood humans they are fighting to be recognized as.
Knightley and Mulligan especially are as good as ever, though Garfield seems a bit more lost in a role that requires him to play a naivete and innocence that sometimes verges on emotional retardation. The scenes with all three of them, though, resonate with the weight of years of real friendship; thought it's not quite enough to replicate the backstory present in Ishiguro's book, we frequently get flashes of the youthful, fleeting bond that exists so strongly between the three of them. As the film reaches toward its devastating conclusion, only slightly altered from the book and still powerful, we feel as much as Ruth and Tommy and Kathy do-- but because of the strange circumstances of their lives, that feeling is still muted. Never Let Me Go is undoubtedly well-crafted and beautiful to look at, but while falling well short of being hollow, it's maybe a better thing to observe than to actually feel.