Fidelity can be a downer. Tiger Woods isn’t the only one afflicted; when saddled with a major literary property, filmmakers can be so slavishly loyal that one begins to see why some people break their vows. The poster for Never Let Me Go informs us that the film is based on “the best novel of the decade”—and it’s spelled out like a silent cry for help. Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrator, a “carer” with the Kafkaesque moniker Kathy H., recalls her experiences at a provincial British boarding school called Hailsham during the mid-1990s; but the author gives the impression that Kathy and her classmates exist outside of any time period, or, barring that, only adjacent to one. The creepy-crawly simplicity burrows into your skin from some back door you thought you had closed. I couldn’t tell whether Kathy was a trifle zonked or just egregiously “English”; she describes her sexual explorations like a third party with nary a vested interest in the findings. All of her reminiscences seem to hover in a grayish miasma, perpetually twilit like an autumn drizzle; and Kathy, who’s a carer in both a plot-specific sense as well as a very general one, speaks to us as if we were fellow residents of the parallel universe that she calls home. (The technique conveys alienation, but also a sense that Kathy is picking apart her memories in order to verify them.) At times, I got a Salem-witch-trials vibe: Her nostalgic equivocations are like an insider’s view into The White Ribbon. The big reveal doesn’t come off like a twist; it’s in the ether—it makes everything else seem twisted.
Mark Romanek, the director, handsomely recreates that atmosphere; but the movie is like a storm system that never hits dry land. Think The Ghost Writer but with the paranoia wrung out and replaced by thick, melancholic, “humanist” sludge—a stiff upper lip that I wanted to smack. It isn’t a bad movie—the plot has been restructured by Alex Garland in a serviceably fleet way—but it feels boxed in by the book’s reputation and its own patina of prestige. The performances of two of my favorite up-and-comers (Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, both appositely cast) aren’t of the failing grade that would incite me to tear down their posters from my wall—the pictures aren’t nudes, mind you; those are in my drawer, LOLZ!—but the film has them squishing in their faces, and puling at the woe-is-me pitch that only Academy Awards voters can hear. Keira Knightley, quite irregularly updated to near-modern times, plays Kathy’s snotty, bitchy, and weirdly magnetic confidante Ruth; but her role has been reduced almost to a cameo. (She’s listed as “And Keira Knightley” in the credits.) Somber, dull colors that no kid would want in his crayon box hold the film together visually; but this homage to the novel’s tone is monochromatic in multiple ways. It’s flattening. The mystery isn’t the bread around the plot that makes the literary sandwich; the elements have been condensed into a streaky slathering of tear-jerking mayonnaise.
If there’s one moment in the film that has the potential for making Papa Ishiguro flinch, it comes when Kathy is enraptured by a reverie, slow-dancing with a dormitory pillow while the eponymous oldies ballad wafts up from her cassette-tape player. In the movie, she’s caught not by a member of the Hailsham faculty—who knows, with a tragic inlay, that Kathy’s fate is sealed—but, rather meaninglessly, by Ruth. What’s worse is that our protagonist is holding her partner like a lover; in the book, she’s poignantly, and portentously, nursing it like a baby. Ishiguro’s sense of loss is lost; it’s been miscarried. But I have to be understanding of what Romanek was up against if Never Let Me Go was his baby. He’s part of the same generation of music-video makers that David Fincher hails from, and his work has always had an expressive, energetic kick. But it’s been eight years since his last feature, One Hour Photo, and he was condemned to film-development hell throughout the interim. (It wasn’t all bad luck; he was attached at one point to The Wolfman.) Is it really any wonder, then, that he’s emerged from the fire and brimstone more cautious and penitent than before? He betrays a surplus of tact—perchance even poise—here. Maybe the dreary homily that Kathy delivers at the end is part of a pact that Romanek had to make with the devil; if the filmmaker wasn’t willing to get a little sentimental and mushy, the studios may have never let him go.