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Ten Word or Less Review: Grim, uncompromising British drama that gets under the skin.

Never Let Me Go begins with a title card which swiftly sets us up for a tale of alternate reality.  We’re only told that a medical breakthrough occurred in the 1950’s and that by the early 70’s the average human lifespan is over 100 years of age.  Though a science fiction set up on paper, there are virtually no sci-fi trappings to be found here.  Never Let Me Go is instead an unsettling tale of three people trying to play out their romantic fates, all the while facing a future that will render their life journey devastatingly short.
Never may try viewers for several reasons, the first of which is its quiet, understated first act.  Little more than a boarding school drama at first, Never introduces us to Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, three pre-pubescent school mates feeling out their way through early adolescence.  They fumble through their first steps for romance, dealing with usual adolescent escapades.  Then one day a new teacher arrives.  The new teacher sees how these special children are being raised and what’s not being told to them.  One day, no longer able to keep up the facade, she tells the children about the truth of their existence and what future awaits them.  She humbly informs the class that they are clones, and that when they reach adulthood they will have to donate their organs one by one, and when they can donate no more they will ‘complete’, i.e. die.  Never Let Me Go changes gears from a remedial British drama about youth to a romantic tragedy which slowly devastates.  Flash forward several years and Ruth (Keira Knightly) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) have become lovers while Kathy (Carey Mulligan) quietly pines for Tommy in quiet solitude.  All three still face that crushing future of ‘completion.’
What slowly begins to dawn on the viewer about Never is its abandoning of all that is conventional within stories such as these.  None of these characters seems openly scared of their fate or attempts to run from it.  The movie simply doesn’t take that well-worn path, it doesn’t even present running away and surviving as a viable option.  This is a solomn world these characters live in, a dystopia where escape to something simply doesn’t exist.  No matter how instinctually wrong their actions, or lack of, may seem to an average viewer the film is, more importantly, honest with itself and to its story.  Ruth, Tommy and Kathy go through a slowly evolving romance which takes place over a decade which becomes quietly devistating for all of them.  Few films sneak up on you with this level of emotional heartbreak.

All three central performers turn in top level work.  Keira Knightly, unshackled from Pirate duty, makes the easily loathsome Ruth into a sympathetic soul.  Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), is the innocent at heart Tommy, a young man who sees his future of donation and completion  and can still smile because of those around him.  Carey Mulligan’s Kathy is the center of the film and its narrator.  Mulligan has scores of pathos in her eyes.  Her calm soul helps hold these friends together through life and eventually completion.
Exquisitely and serenely directed by Mark Romanek, Never is so unorthodox, so rooted in despair, that it’s no surprise many viewers found it unrelatable and/or distant.  So many films come from a place where the actions of characters will envoke empathy and a sense of commonality with the protagonist that to witness a story where such considerations are dropped is almost heresy.  And more than just being turned inside out on a character level, it’s a sci-fi story with little to no sci-fi elements.  This is no high-tech world of special effects wonders.  It’s a thoroughly soggy British landscape that reflects the dour emotional palatte of the story, nothing more.  Romanek draws excellent performances out of everyone and while not likely to win any awards for speed, Never’s methodical pace eventually contribute to its overall success as a piece of gut wrenching cinema.
Never Let Me Go may never find any kind of wide acceptance.  It’s very much a creation which lives on its own and doesn’t make considerations for viewers looking for the norm.  It’s the kind of weird, haunting and profound little movie that those who decide to embrace it will do so wholeheartedly.  The rest of the world will simply let it pass unnoticed, which is a shame.


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