Never Let Me Go Review
Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary output is often characterised by an almost ethereal quality, a hazy, dreamlike reverie in which the bizarre, the unexpected, and the unspoken combine to lace the dream with a sensation of distant, intangible, and unsettling threat. Ishiguro cleverly builds this lingering dread with layer after layer of often indiscernibly subtle plot developments, movements, and references which amass to create powerful and frequently moving outcomes. The unsettling sensation – one which can often be difficult to fully identify and rationalise - can remain embedded in your mind for long after the words on the page have expired. As Never Let Me Go is perhaps the most impressive example of Ishiguro’s ability to infiltrate our subconscious so effectively, it begs the question as to whether a filmic equivalent can ever hope to even partially realise the power and impact of the writer’s accomplished work.
It’s therefore with not a little trepidation that we examine Mark Romanek’s cinematic realisation of the author’s award winning novel. Ishiguro’s stylistic approach - characterised by his portrayal of societal subtlety, his demonstration of silent adherence to unwritten social obligation, and the attention he respectfully pays to the finer details and nuances of interaction – seems to emanate, in part at least, from his cultural background. Having intimate knowledge and experience of both Japanese and English culture, it seems that he is perfectly positioned to explore the subtleties of reserved and repressed character types. With this in mind, it’s easy to question whether American director Romanek would have been best positioned to direct Alex Garland’s screenplay of Ishiguro’s novel, especially given his background in expensive, highly visual music videos. Whilst Romanek demonstrated much promise with the understated One Hour Photo (featuring Robin Williams in a refreshingly different role), the film did struggle to find firm focus as the unsettling chain of events unfolded, and this same touch appears to have been applied by Romanek in Never Let Me Go.
The director certainly deserves credit in his approach to tackling the tall order of bringing the entrancing tale of Never Let Me Go to the screen, as he demonstrates care and restraint throughout. Ishiguro’s story focussing on the children of an English boarding school, who are growing up in an isolated and controlled environment, awaiting an initially unspecified but ultimately predetermined future, is one which is ripe for exploitation in the wrong hands, and its barely detectable sci-fi core could be easily abused. Yet with Garland’s screenplay, Romanek shows nothing but respect for the restraint and delicacy of the story, and his direction of the mainly young cast is impressive, with Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in particular turning in performances which are convincing and authentic.
In contrast to Romanek’s restraint, Adam Kimmel provides a cinematographic contribution which is rich and glorious, most strikingly in its use of colour. It’s not only the strong, confident primary colours, such as the red ball nestled in the green grass, but also the shades of colour, such as the variance across the rolling green fields, or the layered blues of the ocean as the friends visit the beach as they grow up. Other scenes capture an incredible amount of detail and are more akin to a classic oil painting than a modern movie; take the scene early on as the children stand in assembly before the teachers. The amount of detail captured is stunning.
In addition to Kimmel’s accomplished cinematography, Romanek uses symbolism to further counterbalance the great subtlety of his film. Since his characters are often too repressed – or brainwashed, or naïve, or uneducated – to face their horrifying future in its futile completeness, the film often talks via symbolism, and much of this is rich and poignant. Take the ‘bumper crop’ of second hand toys and possessions which are delivered to the school for the youngsters to purchase; as they gleefully forage through the assorted items, grateful for this physically plentiful yet ultimately pitiful selection of goodies, it’s heartbreaking to see that the items are all used, damaged, and seldom complete, with appendages missing from dolls and other items sitting stark in their incompleteness. The reflection of the children in this meagre offering is clear. And the abandoned, stranded old boat on the beach so lovingly explored by Tommy provides one of the saddest symbols of all; here is an empty shell, all useful parts long removed or redundant, sitting isolated and forgotten far away from its natural home. It’s little wonder that Tommy is so keen to jump inside.
Overall, Romanek has paid a great deal of respect to Ishiguro and his novel with this understated, tentative, and often almost passive film. Yet the 99 minute running time simply does not allow a work of such subtlety to have its impact successfully cloned onto the screen. What the novel can build over a few hundred pages cannot be replicated here, and as such the end result is one where we are left only partially engaged with the characters and their futile predicament. It’s an expertly shot, well acted, and thoughtful film, yet the intangibility of the most important elements do not translate on the screen, and the emotional output which should be so powerful is instead rendered nebulous, and lacking in appropriate impact. It’s a decent enough interpretation for those who have read Ishiguro’s novel, but if you haven’t managed to read the original, then that is unquestionably the right place to start before seeing what is a well formed yet slightly distant reflection of the disturbing text.
This region B encoded Blu-ray of Romanek’s film comes in an attractive enough package, with one of those cardboard sleeves over the top of the plastic case. I was slightly disturbed to find that the central story reveal is printed clearly in the blurb on the rear of the case; please do not read it if you are unaware of the story. The novel, in particular, is all the more powerful if you are reading it without this knowledge.
The movie is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio at a resolution of 1080p, and as you might expect, the final product is stunning. The level of detail is incredible, especially where the shots of the internal and external parts of the school are involved. The colour spectrum used by Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is reproduced brilliantly, with the colours constantly proving vivid and strong. I found no evidence of noise, distortion, or anti-aliasing.
To their credit, Fox have provided a wide range of subtitles for the film, including English, Italian, French, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and German.
Audio is similarly well presented. Whilst you shouldn’t be expecting any loud explosions or gimmick-peddling here, your sub may well get something of a workout at the opening of the film, thanks to a deep and menacing bass note which accompanies the full screen colourings. The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is extremely effective, with sounds clean and clear throughout, including, most crucially, the sculptured tones of the well-spoken English dialogue.
As stated, this is a subtle film, so you should not expect an all-out approach to aural delivery, yet the surround elements are used when it is necessary. The rain storm, for example, is especially effective thanks to the use of the rear speakers. All of the visuals are beautifully complimented by Rachel Portman’s moving soundtrack, and the strings of her orchestral score are reproduced perfectly.
Again, Fox have provided an excellent selection of options here, including (in addition to the English 5.1 DTS-HD MA) English Descriptive Audio 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS, Italian 5.1 DTS, and Castilian Spanish 5.1 DTS.
The main course of the extras quotient is a 30 minute segment called The Secrets of Never Let Me Go, which features actor interviews, behind the scenes shots, and stills from the movie. During the interviews, you can pick out some useful information between the predictable ‘love in’ mentality answers, with the actors, producers, screenplay writer (Garland), and novelist (Ishiguro) all showing enormous amounts of love for each other.
Mark Romanek’s On Set Photography is an enjoyable segment which uses a slideshow to showcase Romanek’s artistic black and white shots to a backdrop of music from the movie’s score. The black and white capturing of the old-fashioned clothing lends the shots a certain credence, and as such this featurette is well worth a look.
Tommy’s Art uses the same modus operandi, with Tommy’s unusual artwork forming the subject matter of the showcase on this occasion.
National Donor Programme and Hailsham Campaign Graphics is an unsettling collection of cards and posters which will make sense once you’ve seen the film, and this segment is perhaps the most intriguing out of the ‘slideshow’ style pieces.
Finally, a typically revealing Theatrical Trailer rounds up the selection of extras. I would suggest that you impose a ban on yourself watching the trailer before catching the movie itself.
Romanek makes a bravely restrained effort at converting Ishiguro’s haunting novel for the big screen, yet the end product almost proves too subtle as the unerring sense of dread, despair, and futility so expertly crafted in the novel fails to exert a firm grip on our mind here. For all of that, Fox present a very high quality transfer and an acceptable volume of extras which will mean that fans of the film can’t go far wrong if they choose to invest.