It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the science fiction romance Gattaca and enjoyed that guilt trip which is Michael Bay's The Island, dealing with a bunch of innocent people living in utopia until being called to well, enter nirvana. With such elements combined from both films (sans Bayhemic levels of explosions of course), it's relatively easy for me to fall in love with Never Let Me Go, whcih is fast going to be a favourite that I will rattle off in any of my best-of list.
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also penned The Remains of the Day), this film spells lush on all counts, in its production values and the quality of the cast assembled to take on the three principal roles of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, with Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purnell playing the younger versions in the first third of the film set in the orphanage of Hailsham, before Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley taking over as the young adult versions respectively. Things aren't what they seem because it's set in an alternative reality with the introductory titles stating an advancement in medical science and on human longevity, while in the orphanage, technology like access controls and electronic registers, in the 50s no less, make it seem a little odd. But there are good reasons for this, with the film never making its intentions verbatim and explicit, preferring to rely on suggestion so on that same note I'll tread very carefully too.
To compound the oddity, the students aren't made to learn life skills, only being given the fish than to be taught how to fish, as seen through their role plays in class for things as simple as ordering in a cafe, being told to submit art pieces on a regular basis, and being happy recipients of second hand thingamajigs which they have to use tokens, not money, to exchange for. And the title of the film comes from a cassette tape of songs which Tommy gives Kathy, and while you'd half expect them to hitch, in comes Ruth whose earlier disinterest seems to have developed into something more. When they finally graduate, we see Kathy still nursing a broken heart, and together with her friends Tommy and Ruth, they get sent to cottages outside of town in which they mingle with others of the same schooling experience, before Kathy decides to leave on her own and become a care-giver.
Saying anything more with details will spoil the film, but in essence this is one powerful romance that will tug at your heartstrings, not because it follows the typical path of any weepy, sappy romantic films that the Japanese or Koreans can think of, but because of the many ethical and moral issues it raises through its narrative course, being thought-provoking in its theme of what makes us tick, our moral compass, and whether in today's reality, we do see these issues as show stoppers to what technology can finally bring us, and whether we can turn the blind eye to some existentialism issues in the name of self-preservation. But it doesn't do so in a formulaic, dry manner, but skillfully exerts its message through an achingly beautiful romance, that I'd have to admit made me bawl a little within when the end credits rolled by.
And credit goes to the powerful performances by all three leads, each playing uniquely different characters in the same boat, though approaching the inevitable in their lives in varied ways, which leaves one thinking how one would react if passed a sentence or destiny which you know of, but having absolutely zero means to escape from. I haven't been convinced very much by Andrew Garfield, but probably the best scene he had here was this realization of hope being unceremoniously snuffed out - that look on his eyes had something defiant with helplessness all mixed in, that it hammers in great sympathy. Keira Knightley takes a backseat here, being that foil to Carey Mulligan's Kathy and coming in between her and Tommy, but understandably so and you'll probably feel for her reason of fear, of someone putting up false fronts to cover one's own vulnerabilities. And Mulligan is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses with her ability to portray strong roles, having to bookend this period piece. The young actors playing the schoolchildren versions of the characters also did convincingly well since they were the setup, as does Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins, especially in their final scene together.
It's pretty amazing how director Mark Romanek, whose One Hour Photo I had enjoyed and had this sense of creepiness throughout, was able to helm such a romantic film that didn't have to boil it down to melodrama that plagues many Asian ones that utilizes similar plot elements, with Alex Garland, longtime collaborator in many Danny Boyle films, ably translating both human drama and science fiction from book to screenplay, like what he did with Sunshine. And you can lull yourself with the hauntingly beautiful score created by Rachel Portman, as it provides an added dimension to the entire film altogether. There's much to heart about the film, about potentials of lives that cannot be lived or fulfilled, that makes this one of the saddest films I've seen to date. A definite entry into my shortlist of one of the best this year, and into my all time favourites list. Highly recommended!