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Anxiety attack of the clones
Alternative universe coming-of-age tale gives way to its director’s oppressive nature

Never Let Me Go

Rated:R
Studio:Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast:Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Genre:Science fiction
Our Rating:

Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the highly acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, isn’t so much a narrative feature as it is a visual essay: a glossy fashion pictorial with a semblance of story like the ones in GQ or Vanity Fair. We understand that there’s a theme (inescapable mortality) and a love triangle of sorts, but what really matters are the kicky scarves. 

In short, Never Let Me Go begins in 1978 at Hailsham, a beautiful prep school in England. The school’s inhabitants seem like normal kids, except that they’re clones, born with the express purpose of reaching maturity so their vital organs can be harvested. (We’re told that in this world, scientific breakthroughs have pushed average life expectancy to more than 100 years and as a result, not enough people are dying to fulfill donor lists.) This is not a spoiler: The kids know their mission, even if they don’t understand it completely. 

Here we meet Tommy, a troubled clone who often erupts in fits of rage, and the two friends competing for his attention: introverted Kathy and gorgeous, somewhat conniving Ruth, who makes the first move on Tommy and thus seizes him for years to come. 

The Mark Romanek who directed the first half of the film could have also directed An Education, To Sir, with Love or even Stand By Me. He displays a remarkable flair for the coming-of-age tale and found three young actors – Izzy Meikle-Small as Kathy, Ella Purnell as Ruth and Charlie Rowe as Tommy – whose soulful eyes and devastating ways with dialogue actually blow their adult counterparts out of the water. Of course, the story demands that Romanek leave Hailsham’s grounds, but that’s still a damn shame; I could have watched this cast all night. One sequence, in which Meikle-Small’s Kathy, clutching a pillow tightly to her chest, loses herself in her own sorrow to the tunes of the fictional singer Judy Bridgewater (sung in the film by Jane Monheit), is one of the best lovesick scenes I’ve ever watched. The Romanek who directed the adult half is the most frustrating one, obsessed with everyday characters who never quite accepted their sterile lives and yearn to break out. The problem is that Romanek never lets them go: From his similarly themed music videos (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Madonna’s “Bedtime Story,”) to his debut feature, One Hour Photo and now this, Romanek does not allow for cathartic release or glimmers of hope. After a falling out, the grown-up Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) have gone their separate ways – Kathy’s a “carer,” looking out for other cloned donors as they “complete” (give and give until they die); Tommy and Ruth have already begun their donor process and are near death. The three reunite and the second half of the film focuses on their remaining days together. 

At least One Hour Photo had a beginning, middle and end. Never Let Me Go meanders, albeit beautifully so, and too often feels laughably unaware of itself. In one scene, an upset Ruth chides her friends for making her think they found her “original” (the actual person from whom she was cloned), a sophisticated, elegant older woman. Ruth shouts that she and her friends weren’t made from upper-crust people, but from convicts and mental patients and street urchins. “You want to look for possibles, then look in the gutter!” rants Keira Knightley – the preternaturally gorgeous Hollywood starlet framed against a picturesque ocean backdrop while wearing designer clothes. Gutter. Right. 

Hopefully, Never Let Me Go will be a transitional mistake for the immensely talented Romanek, and not an indication that the eight years since his last film have been spent adrift in visionary vanity. Whatever the case, it’s time for him to find some light at the end of his storytelling tunnels. 

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