‘Never Let Me Go” feels like the lead bib you’re forced to wear at the dentist’s office for X-rays. It’s heavy, oppressive and leaves you unable to so much as squirm.
An odd cross between arthouse fare and science fiction, the film is depressing and flat despite a starry cast and a wickedly smart setup. It’s the kind of independent cinema that gives the genre a bad name. You’ll want to rush out of the theater to smell a flower, make a snow angel or do something – anything – remotely life affirming.
Kera Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan star as Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, three friends who grow up together at a drab British boarding school called Hailsham. Life is ordinary for the trio, but a fledgling romantic triangle adds zing to their days.
A rebellious instructor (“Happy Go Lucky’s” Sally Hawkins) shatters their sense of complacency, giving them a glimpse into their future. It isn’t pretty.
The film’s opening text crawl tells us to expect something … different. In this version of reality, medical science has made advances that let most people live to 100 – and beyond. And the lives of the Hailsham teens help make that happen.
Let’s say no more about the twist beyond noting a nod to time crunch films like “Logan’s Run.”
The film then flashes forward to the characters’ adult selves as they grapple with their truncated fate – and unsolved emotions.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name has an edge over the film version simply because novels shed more light on a character’s interior than a movie ever could. That’s crucial here because the dynamics between the three friends never give us a reason to care. Kathy loves Tommy but so does Ruth, but Tommy seems blissfully unaware of the tension. And neither girl seems particularly torn up about the state of affairs.
The teen sequences, besides casting actors who look unerringly like their adult selves, hold the most sway over us. “Never Let Me Go” may be dystopian to its core, but the film captures the lives of young adults caught in a suffocating school setting. The great Charlotte Rampling sets the tone as the school’s dean of discipline.
The cast can’t be blamed for the film’s soulless nature, although Mulligan seems to be following the Jennifer Connelly School of Acting which says one should look on the cusp of a crying jag – or at least a good pout – in every scene.
What’s really depressing about “Never Let Me Go” are the opportunities wasted. Science fiction rarely gets treated with such reverence, and countless story angles which should have infused the film are either ignored or treated shabbily, like the notion of suffering for the greater good and the transcendent nature of art and affection. Moral dilemmas are left for the audience to tease out, a noble approach but misguided since so much of the story is similarly blank.
“Never Let Me Go” hits theaters with Oscar buzz based on its cast and source material. It’s hard to imagine Academy voters, let alone audiences, warming up to this cool and distant yarn.
(Photo: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in “Never Let Me Go” – Photo by Alex Bailey)