Friday, October 22, 2010

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: NEVER LET ME GO

Screenwriter Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel Never Let Me Go is a literate, moving screenplay that derives as much of its power from the pauses between the lines as it does from what characters say. The story of three young children growing up in an imposing, strict, orderly boarding school tucked away in the British countryside has a great deal of power and mystery. The rules are strict for a very specific reason. The secret behind these circumstances is pure science fiction, but this is not a film of blinking doo-dads, slimy creatures or flurries of jargon. This is a film that considers its subject deeply and seriously. There are great depths of emotion here, hidden just beneath the calm rhythms and hushed tones.

Picking up on the spare, suggestive emotionality of the writing, director Mark Romanek, last seen directing 2002’s One Hour Photo, creates a chilled, artful mood that feels patient and foreboding. This is a film filled with beautiful dread and calm menace. This is a deliberate film with not a single wasted shot. It’s a sort of zen sci-fi, with compositions and words so finely tuned and chosen that it becomes a film of intricate beauty, an exquisitely structured and affecting piece of mood and style.

When we first see the school, Hailsham, it appears as an imposing brick-and-stone structure set in the middle of a clearing. Within its walls are hundreds of seemingly typical children who are eerily composed and disquieting in their poise. They have the bearings of ones who have been carefully trained, skillfully regimented. This is, after all, a prep school prepping the kids for a very specific purpose. Presiding over the school is the regal headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) who knows more than she tells.

Still, when we meet young Cathy (Izzy Meikle-Small) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) they seem to be very normal preteen girls. They discuss horses and gossip about their classmates. Cathy has a crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a misfit who is emotional and creative, but awfully insecure. These are children who, despite their appearance of maturity, are quite naïve and stunted. We don’t entirely comprehend the rules that govern their lives at Hailsham, but then neither do they. But still, this school is all they’ve ever known. Even when a well-meaning new teacher (Sally Hawkins), wrestling with her conscience, tells the students the true nature of their futures, they don’t quite know what to make of it.

When we catch up with the kids some years later, in their late teens, they are still grappling with their fates, struggling to make sense of their place in the world. Ruth and Tommy, having grown up to be Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, seem, at first glance, content to live in the moment, covering up their knowledge with their youthful optimism and cautious exploration of the adult world. Cathy (now the luminous Carey Mulligan) finds her future more unsettling. She’s lonelier than her friends, more serious. Though she doesn’t ever really open up to those around her, emotions and urges are powerfully stirring within her. She’s quietly accepting her lot in life, but she’s hardly happy.

Mulligan’s brilliant performance is a quiet one filled with meaningful looks and the smallest of facial expressions. It matches the deliberate tone of the filmmaking in the way the sparest, most economical gesture can suggest so much. This is a film of quiet and solitude, of uncomfortable facts and sad realizations. This is a film that is concerned with matters of life and death. But there are no hysterics. There is little sentimentality. This is a film of grace and beauty that is serenely overwhelming.

Romanek’s work here is gripping, emotional filmmaking. It’s melodrama stripped of embellishment. It’s sci-fi in name only, stripped of its standard accoutrements. It’s a film that’s both a startling, small-scale exploration of scientific ethics and a beautiful story of unrequited love. It’s a study of love and mortality that grows deeper and lovelier with each passing scene. It’s subtle power sneaks up and overpowers. The surface beauty and the finely crafted performances are commanding, but the depths of the feelings beneath them are even more surprising, nuanced and devastating. There’s an awful yearning at the center of the film, a sense of a horrible void in these characters’ lives that can never be filled.

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