By WALLACE BAINE
Though they’re often used interchangeably, “sad” and “depressing” are not synonyms. There is a hint of fleeting beauty in the first word that’s just not there in the second.
A magazine story on the national debt is “depressing.” But “Never Let Me Go” attains a kind of heartbreaking intensity to earn the label “sad.”
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s gorgeous novel, this quiet, quicksilver film has a sense of fatalism that some might find suffocating. But director Mark Romaneck (“One Hour Photo”), adhering tightly to Ishiguro’s narrative, coaxes out beautiful performances from three young actors, infuses just about every shot with a palpable sense of poignancy, and, in the process, creates a resonant story of dignity in the face of an implacable fate.
You may find that the most frustrating thing about the film is telling others about it. It’s one of those stories that forces reviewers to be coy about its plot, because the central premise, which is revealed about 20 minutes in, sounds like a spoiler.
For those who don’t want to know the film’s big reveal, let us say that director Romaneck creates exactly the right kind of visual palette to fit the material. Set in Britain of the 1970s and ’80s, the film carries a cold grayness in its shots that somehow enhances the spark of humanity in its characters rather than extinguish it.
Also, this film should mark an exciting new turning point in the career of the young actress Carey Mulligan, who has already been nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in the little-seen “An Education.” Mulligan, 25, is an actress of astounding emotional subtlety and this is the kind of platform that could launch a historic career. She’s that good.
Now comes your spoiler alert and your invitation to read something else:
“Never Let Me Go” is a curious kind of alternate history, a sort of period science-fiction. In Britain of the 1950s, we’re told, medical breakthroughs allowed life expectancy to go beyond 100 by the late 1960s. The price of that scientific advance was a horrifying ethical practice of raising parent-less children in enormous state facilities for the sole purpose of turning them into involuntary organ donors.
It’s a chilling premise, but the film, like the book before it, chooses not to flesh out the socio-political ramifications of such an inhuman policy. Instead it focuses on the psychological and emotional dimensions.
The story revolves around three such children at a pastoral orphanage known as Hailsham, presided over by a severe schoolmaster played by an aged Charlotte Rampling. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are representative of most Hailsham kids. As they grow from children to adolescents, they form a love triangle – Kathy falls hard for the square-peg Tommy, the more glamorous Ruth swoops in and takes Tommy for her own.
Flash forward a few years, the three are now young adults and have moved together from Hailsham to a facility for young donors called The Cottages. As Kathy, Mulligan mixes stoicism with a kind of emotional expressiveness that is a marvel to watch. Keira Knightley as Ruth and Andrew Garfield as Tommy are also great fits in their roles. But it’s Mulligan who gives the film its core empathy.
What is refreshing in such a tale is that there are no bad guys per se. You can make the case that Ishiguro, a Japanese-born writer who grew up in the U.K., is making a comment about the effects that a class-based society has had on the British soul, given that the kids do not rebel against their fate, but accept it as immutable. You could argue that you couldn’t make such a film about Americans, because American kids would run away to Mexico before submitting to such a system.
But, of course, there’s a larger philosophical step back that the film is making here. In expressing empathy with the film’s doomed characters, we’re really looking at ourselves. After all, aren’t we all fated to live a set number of days before we are to succumb as well?
Which is why anyone who makes this a metaphor about, say, the perils of Obamacare are missing the point. Life is fleeting and love is short in “Never Let Me Go,” but it’s only a degree or two better out here in the real world. Some folks might find that depressing. It’s really at heart a story of beautiful sadness.