Oct. 16 2010 12:00 AM

'Never Let Me Go' is a provocative, chilling heartbreaker


Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grew up within the confines of Hailsham, a secluded private academy in the English countryside. They weren't typical British schoolchildren, however.
Their parents never whisked them away to holidays at the seashore or a day of shop-hopping in London. In fact, Cathy, Tommy and Ruth never left the grounds of Hailsham, and they certainly never met their parents.
If you've read Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel "Never Let Me Go," you know why that is. If you haven't, keep in mind the story unfolds in a sort of alternative past, in which enormous, even miraculous, breakthroughs in medicine have pushed the average life expectancy to 100 years or more. From the brief glimpses of England we see in director Mark Romanek's almost relentlessly solemn film, that might not be such a sweet deal.
The kids eventually grow up and leave Hailsham, but the outside world isn't terribly different than the school: Although everything somehow has managed to keep on running, it's obvious things are not what they used to be, and there's an inescapable sense that real joy and excitement disappeared a long time ago.
That melancholy mood surrounds the crucial question at the heart of "Never": Are some of us allowed to live freely and chart our own courses, while others are permitted only to exist, to go through the years adhering to preordained codes of conduct? The shadows of both the British class system and the cult of the kamikaze warrior loom large over the society shown in "Never," which is less surprising when you consider Ishiguro was born in Japan and raised in England.
"Never" is a challenging picture on several levels, especially for those viewers that insist on having everything explicitly spelled out. Miniature mysteries and questions destined to remain unanswered float in the air, and the solutions are left up to you. When Kathy, Ruth and Tommy fully realize what fate has in store for them, they choose resignation rather than rebellion, a decision that will puzzle many. Raised to approach life with unquestioning conformity, not unlike many of the characters in George Orwell's "1984" (or the blindly dedicated manservant in Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," for that matter) they simply don't know how or can't bring themselves to object, no matter what misgivings they may have. They know their place, they embrace their duty and they will not reject their responsibilities, no matter how grim the consequences may be. It's all a bit chilling.
While the movie, like the novel, is told from Kathy's point of view, it shifts the focus from the childhoods of the central trio to their lives post-Hailsham. Screenwriter Alex Garland economically condenses the book's lengthy set-up into a suitably atmospheric opening half-hour that introduces the characters and spells out their relationships. Kathy is quiet, kind and sometimes a bit dreamy-eyed; Ruth, her best friend, is more assertive and self-confident, like many girls who grow up knowing they're a little bit prettier and smarter than the rest of the crowd; Tommy struggles with a temper that's tough to control, but he's actually a soft-hearted sort. By the time they graduate from Hailsham and move on to The Cottages, the three will have split into a couple, plus one: Ruth captures Tommy's heart, while Kathy politely steps aside, refusing to fully acknowledge that she also has strong feelings for Tommy.
Kathy is played as a child by Isobel Meikle-Small and as an adult by Carey Mulligan; rarely has there been a more convincing transition between performers. Not only does Meikle-Small look like a pint-sized version of Mulligan, the wistfulness and slightly pained introspection that will be the hallmarks of the older Kathy are easy to see in Meikle-Small's beautifully detailed work.
Mulligan, who has a grace and luminescence similar to the young Julie Christie, portrays Kathy as someone determined to control her emotions, even though she's ultimately a slave to them. Even when she puts up a fight, they betray her: At times, tears trickle almost apologetically down her cheeks, even though there's no audible trace of anxiety or sorrow in her voice.
It would be simple to cast Kathy as an altruistic martyr, but Mulligan bravely takes a more sophisticated approach, hinting at a streak of masochism in her makeup and suggesting that perhaps a young woman who has never really known love finds a kind of comfort in misery and self-deprivation. (The story takes its title from a Julie London-style ballad that Kathy finds utterly hypnotic.)
Ruth is considerably less complex, yet Knightley does a commendable job of hiding a few of her cards. Perhaps Ruth is a cruel conniver who enjoys toying with Tommy and Kathy, or maybe she's simply a young woman so focused on getting what she thinks she wants that she fails to take anyone else's feelings into account. Clearly, she's determined to fit in with the people she admires: While watching a stupid TV sitcom with her new housemates at The Cottages, Ruth makes herself laugh at the jokes, even though she doesn't get any of the humor.
Garfield's Tommy is both endearingly awkward and slightly unpredictable, a ball of boyish energy bouncing around uncomfortably in the body of a man. You can see it in the way he tries to cross his legs while standing still, or when he frequently rubs his face, as if he's trying to erase uncertain expressions. Although he's the most lighthearted of the three, Tommy is also extremely sensitive, which becomes apparent when his last illusion about Hailsham is shattered by his former headmistress (the regal, vaguely threatening Charlotte Rampling). Her words literally paralyze Tommy, and in Garfield's stunned gaze you can see Tommy's sunny scenario of the future crumbling into dust.
In Ishiguro's book, Kathy continually undersells her feelings and, in her very British way, muddles through. Romanek's direction is in a similar vein. There's no sentimentality here and, while the story includes many heart-wrenching moments, the movie is far from a typical tearjerker. Everything, from the color schemes to the declarations of love, is subdued; the rare emotional outbursts that do occur are genuinely jolting, almost as if someone had set off firecrackers in a serene garden.
This isn't a film for everyone -- some will be put off by the characters' refusal to challenge the system -- but it makes many provocative points about the very nature of humanity. Are all men created equal? In the bleak world of "Never Let Me Go," the answer does not take long to figure out.

"Never Let Me Go" is now playing at NCG Eastwood Cinemas.