Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightly are both 25 years old. Andrew Garfield is 27. Kind of crazy, especially when you consider their filmography, and more so than that, their collective immense talent.
Man is Never Let Me Go good. I mean so good. This is one of the most subtle, romantic, and beautifully composed films I’ve watched in some time. Director Mark Romanek (the underrated One Hour Photo and scores of music videos) takes on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Part science-fiction, all love story, the film avoids any genre trappings, and hardly rises above a breath on the way towards an inevitable, yet still successful climax.
How do you successfully use voiceover? There’s no one way. Hardboiled detectives, Godard-ian reflections, etc all have their place. Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland use it only sparingly in Never Let Me Go, and it’s always the voice of Kathy (Carey Mulligan). She reflects on the fleeting nature of life, but avoids the pretentions that sometimes drag down otherwise great films (ahem, Terrence Malick). What makes her VO really great is when it’s used. In otherwise sparse moments, her VO tends to rise above the landscape and rhythm of the score, creating a kind of mournful music of its own. It’s as lyrical to hear the sound as the words.
There’s a really wonderful moment in Never Let Me Go. Here’s a SPOILER of sorts (though the back of the DVD inexplicably says almost all of this): Kathy, Ruth (Knightly) and Tommy (Garfield) are raised in a tightly knit British boarding school. All seems right…sort of. They wear electronic bracelets. They’re never allowed off the grounds for fear of mutilation and death. They’re sheltered from the outside world. A caring teacher breaks the rules and reveals the truth: they’re genetically engineered clones, raised only for their organs.
Cue the sci-fi music, right? Not really. This is sci-fi only in its barest narrative. This information, hardly ever visualized outside of the sterile operating room, could be from some parallel past. Romanek keeps the aesthetic tightly controlled to, in fact, recall a past England that we all know or have seen. The combination of the familiar (past) with the unknown (sci-fi past) lends a sort of credibility to the action and roots it something more real (emotion) that in any gimmick or twist.
Back to the scene in question: the class learns the truth. Big pause. The teacher can’t take it herself and walks to the window (classic blocking). Wind blows through the room. A paper shuffles on the desk and wavers to the floor. Beat. Tommy, still young at this time, stands amidst the quiet and replaces the paper. It’s wonderfully directed, with well imagined shots and a unique sense of timing. Within the script it’s even stronger. This is a moment that on the surface means nothing. But later, when Tommy and Kathy, who are truly in love and now grown, approach their former headmaster and ask for a “deferral,” that is, a longer lease on life and reprieve from organ donations, Tommy’s naivete (read: picking up a meaningless piece of paper during what should be the most affected, dramatic moment of his young life. Read: acting nicely, but automatically) shines through again. Where Kathy immediately understands that the deferrals so often whispered about are myths, Tommy doesn’t right away. It’s the shy misunderstanding on his face – the equivalent of his innocently picking up this paper while his classmates and teacher exist in stunned silence – that carries the scene and makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Never Let Me Go is filled with moments like this. It floats right on past you, but you won’t forget it.