Thursday, 14 October 2010

London Film Festival: Never Let Me Go

This much-anticipated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel opened the London Film Festival yesterday. Although I’ve seen quite a lot of this year’s programme already, it feels right to kick off the first of my festival updates with the big opening film.

During the post-screening press conference, Mark Romanek talked in almost gushing terms about Ishiguro's source novel (coming across more like a softly spoken rabbi than a director). He paid tribute to screenwriter Alex Garland and spoke glowingly of how collaborative the experience had been. All fine and good, but this reverential tone might be one of the reasons that the end product was, for me, a well-intentioned, artistically timid and – to be honest – slightly ponderous experience.

Never Let Me Go simply doesn’t take enough risks with the original material to succeed as a fully-realised film. There’s something very sealed-off and parched about this movie. For a film that is ultimately about what it means to be human, it’s far too polite and conventional to truly resonate, connect or feel tragic in any way.

Despite the impressive cast, it’s the first part of the film – dealing with the central trio as children – that is easily the most effective, and affecting. Romanek displays a deft touch in these early stages, creating an alternative Britain of the 70s where we learn that “by 1967, life expectancy passes 100 years”.

The hermetically-sealed – part-Blyton, part-Kafka – Hailsham boarding school is home to a generation of cloned children who will be organ-harvested when they reach adulthood. They will be robbed of any creative or romantic future, living only to ‘complete’ – and become donors for human transplants.

There’s an eerie sense of impending doom to this part of the film, which is full of foreboding and sinister adolescent dread. I was reminded of Joseph Losey’s strange, unsettling The Damned, which also deals with children brought up in isolation.

Once the action shifts to their teenage years, this sureness begins to ebb away. The notes are all there but the playing is off, somehow. It’s a very tough call for the central trio, essaying characters who are essentially barren imitators of human behaviour locked in a world they can’t understand or relate to. But the devastating consequences of their fate don’t resonate through the performances, which are variable in tone. Carey Mulligan is the standout, displaying quiet wisdom beyond her years. Keira Knightly is stretched – but manages to be brittle and affecting. Andrew Garfield, well, it’s fair to say he has been better than he is here.

There’s an awful lot of emoting during a draggy midsection that feels more like a prestige TV adaptation. It’s at this point that we should feel closer to these characters – their frustrations, their passions, and the quiet desperation of their short existence. Instead the principle players drift around, quietly accepting their fate. The climax we are building to, never in any real doubt, should be inexorable, devastating and haunting. Instead it feels unearned and forced.

For a film laden with talent, this was a disappointingly low-key start to the festival. Romanek is a gifted director who can build a sinsiter mood very effectively – particularly in the overlooked One Hour Photo – but his approach here is too reverent and lacking in nerve.

Letting go of this one feels too easy.

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