Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is one of the most acclaimed novels of the past decade. But how does the new movie hold up? Early reviews are divided, some praising the film's subtlety, others calling it soulless and boring.
Oh, and here's a spoiler warning. There are some relatively minor spoilers below, and the reviews we're linking to are chock full of spoilers.
So the adaptation of the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel has played at a couple of film festivals now, and it opens this week in a few places. It's opening a bit wider on Sept. 24, and will go nationwide on Oct. 8. After reading through a bushel of reviews that came out over the weekend, I'd say the response is pretty divided, with negative reviews somewhat outweighing positive ones. But both the lovers and the haters seem to agree that it's a subdued, muted film that pares down the novel to a skeleton of the plot and relies on some voice-overs to get across some key ideas.
In the interests of being nice, we'll start with the six good reviews and then move on to the nine negative/mixed ones:
Never Let Me Go is that rare find, a fragile little four-leaf clover of a movie that's emotionally devastating, yet all too easily trampled by cynics. Every carefully chosen gesture, composition and note in this tragic love story seems engineered to wring tears as director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) gradually pulls back to reveal the full scope of his ambitious thought experiment... Though technically a science-fiction story, Never Let Me Go plays more like a polite Victorian romance, all repressed feelings and unrequited yearning. Still, conceived in the spirit of such future-minded parables as Children of Men and Fahrenheit 451, Ishiguro's premise ... manipulates certain key variables in our world in order to arrive at some deeper truth.
And Film Journal says the movie might actually be better than the book, calling it:
an intelligent and deeply felt adaptation of a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland trimmed the story to its essentials, concentrating the book's powerful ethical dilemma. The cast, cinematography and sets perfectly suit the material and lend the movie a lyricism, and an immediacy, Ishiguro's sometimes mannered prose lacks. The filmmakers don't overplay the strangeness of the novel's central conceit; neither do they neglect its genuine creepiness.... Romanek rightly recognized that ... Never Let Me Go would be most affecting when understated.
Also very excited was Film.com, which praised the film's "aching sensitivity," saying:
Like almost all adaptations, this isn't as good as the book it's based on, but [screenwriter Andrew] Garland and Romanek have done an outstanding job of translating a unique story into the language of film.
The Guardian chimes in with more praise:
Mark Romanek demonstrates a fine eye for subtlety... The great success of Romanek and Garland's Never Let Me Go is its quiet subversiveness. Nothing that happens here is screamed out; rather the truth unfolds gently and ebbs against lives that understand it but yearn for existence to be something else.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer was also pretty blown away, saying:
"Never Let Me Go" has the potential to become the full-blown, box-of-Kleenex weeper of the fall... It's a compelling, strange story.
Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir praises this "meticulous and devastating" film, which "resembles a Merchant-Ivory tragedy about doomed love in a war zone, except that the doomed love involves human guinea pigs and the war zone is not some tropic zone but the alleged good intentions of medical science... Romanek does so many difficult things beautifully in this movie, which richly deserves the Oscar consideration it will surely receive."
And now for the more negative and mixed reviews...
Entertainment Weekly's review is in the new issue, but isn't yet online. In a nutshell, Owen Gleiberman says that the movie has some fine performances, but is dramatically flat — the young protagonists are too passive and too accepting of their dismal fate, and this drains all of the urgency out of the film. The only time the film starts to take off is when two of the characters chase down a rumor that if they can prove they're really, truly in love, they'll get a few more years. This moment is heavily featured in the trailer, but according to Gleiberman it's a rare spark of life in an otherwise lifeless film. (I'm paraphrasing a bit here.)
USA Today has a capsule review in which they call the film "moving — if slow moving." They say it's an "English boarding school love triangle" with the fore-ordained doom hanging over the characters. And they say there's "Good stuff, but the getting around to it takes a while."
Toronto's CityTV has another capsule review, calling the film "a dreary drama," in which "Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightly also delivered performances as if they were channeling roles they've played before, and neither convinced me why I should be caring about their characters."
A similar note comes from Newsweek, which says:
In many respects, Never Let Me Go actually works well on the screen; visually, it is a beautiful film, and nicely acted... But the movie strains against the limitations of its form, with characters pushed and flattened into a plot. ... At the end, we're told via voice-over the moral of the story: for all their spoiler-related differences, Kathy, Ruth, and the rest are just like us. But in the movie, at least, they're not. They are a little too soulless.
And then there's Rope Of Silicon, which says:
As beautifully shot as Never Let Me Go is, and as lyrical and softly compelling as it may be, it still feels cold and out of arm's reach.... Romanek doesn't sow any seeds in this garden, instead he plants full grown flowers which are asked to immediately blossom as soon as he turns on the camera. The situations and characters he's dealing with need far more nurturing and room to breathe than he gives them.
Unfortunately, this is another case in which a very fine book has been denuded of its richness, leaving only dull Oscar bait in its wake.
Cinematical praises the film's performances, but laments that it feels too sketchy and slight, and we don't really get to know any of these characters as well as we should:
Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go reduces Kazuo Ishiguro's novel - among the most rightfully acclaimed of the last ten years - into a film so achingly wistful, gorgeous, and true that it's a shame it feels adapted from a short story... while sporadically sublime, Never Let Me Go doesn't earn the theatrics of a third act that feels thin where it should be wrenching. What we're left with is a gorgeous but deeply frustrating film that regularly taps into the haunted tenderness so crucial to Ishiguro's writing, but at a scant and transitory 103 minutes Never Let Me Go doesn't take the time to have you in the first place.
That criticism of the movie's third act also crops up in the review from The Film Stage:
The translation [from page to screen] is elegant to behold, but much of the character development has been cut out. This results in a crippled third act, in which Romanek was clearly aiming for the profound emotional reflection found in the novel.... Never Let Me Go is a bold film that may plant a few ideas in your mind, but Romanek and Garland never let them fully bloom.
Indiewire joins the chorus of those claming the film is visually stunning but empty-feeling:
Never Let Me Go has more visual sheen than storytelling polish. Having established the central problem, Alex Garland's script never takes it very far... Although quietly unnerving, "Never Let Me Go" mainly functions as an exercise in creating a solemn aura and not letting up. Whether or not Romanek intended it to feel one-note, at least it's a well-orchestrated one.