Ah, Mark Romanek. You’re sort of a genius. You pioneered the art form of music videos and made a brilliant, if somewhat aloof feature debut in the form of the psychological thriller ‘One Hour Photo.’ Then you wasted a ton of time developing ‘The Wolfman,’ only to be unceremoniously fired by Universal just weeks before principle photography began, and we all know how well that turned out… But you’re back! You have a movie that played at the Toronto Film Festival (Josh just saw it there), one based on an acclaimed novel. A few months ago, Spike Jonze said that it made him cry, it was so powerful. And while it’s an arresting movie, both visually and at times emotionally, it just didn’t do it for me in the end.
Oh, and spoiler warning:
I started writing this post a few weeks ago and am returning to it now, with the hopes that people either have seen the film, or know enough about it that I can talk about my problems without horribly spoiling anything. If you still haven’t seen it or heard anything about it, feel free to turn back now. If you want to know why it didn’t make me weep uncontrollably (the intent of this type of film), then please read on.
‘Never Let Me Go’ is based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (I haven’t read the book; Josh did), about children who attend a boarding school in an alternate-history version of the United Kingdom. An opening page of text tells us that there have been revolutionary breakthroughs in medical research. Then we’re introduced to Hailsham, a school not unlike others, except that all the children are living underneath a huge secret and wear electronic security bracelets that they have to check at every door. The children grow up to be Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley. You come to realize that they’re clone – replications that are harvested for organ donation. The whole thing unfolds like ‘The Island’ mixed with ‘The Remains of the Day’ (which Ishiguro also wrote). But nothing is ever given the proper amount of human weight, everything seems detached, at a distance, over emotionalized and never engaging.
As much as I love Mark Romanek, a lot of these problems have to do with his direction. There’s an unnecessary prologue that all but saps the suspense and energy from the film’s final two acts, and dozens of insert shots of wildlife or nature that don’t do the movie any favors. Unlike Terrence Malick, who can add a shot of a bird for no good reason, leaving the audience to figure out what the bird means and what place the bird has in the narrative, the birds in ‘Never Let Me Go’ correlate directly to what is going on. (I know this is a terrible analogy but just go with it.)
Instead of a fondness for the characters, we instead have a kind of bemused attachment. They are so consigned to their given fates, that there’s no reason for us to hope otherwise, to get excited about the prospect of their escape. Garfield, who is so electrically alive in David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network,’ registers little but heartsickness and resignation. The characters don’t even contemplate escape as an intellectual exercise, so neither do we. This probably made more sense in the book (adapted by Alex Garland), but here things just hang limp and lifeless. The movie is about harvesting clones for organs, which is fitting since the one thing it needs above all else is some heart.