Never Let Me Go

never_let_me_goDirector: Mark Romanek. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley. UK, 2010. Budget: $15 million. IMDb: 7.2. My rating: 2/4. A love triangle story in a dystopian society.

– We didn’t have The Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had The Gallery to see if you had souls at all. Do you understand?
(Miss Emily)

There is something deeply weird with “Never Let Me Go”, the third feature film by Mark Romanek. Mostly, it’s the tone. For a story about so sensitive and violent things, everything is told in such a neutral and cold tone that it becomes actually hard to have any feeling towards the film and the characters.

This is exactly what made certain critics and large part of the public praise it so much. Surprising… but understandable. Still, many, like me, were not convinced at all, blaming the film exactly for the neutrality and little credibility of the dystopian world portrayed. Because when you finally take off all the intellectual disguise, the film is not that deep as it wants to be.

In an interview Mark Romanek mentions that one of inspiring concepts while directing the film and finding the right voice for it was mono no aware, the Japanese concept of an empathy towards things, a melancholic observation, a gentle sadness about the impermanence of things. This kind of tone is typical for other Ishiguro’s novels.

It’s difficult to classify the movie as it doesn’t really work well in any of the categories. Formally, it’s a dystopia portraying alternative 70-s, but the main premise is realized in a barely credible way, as it goes against the basic human nature – nobody ever rebels here, there is no drama, no resistance, no tension. Everybody just accepts things as they are, but nothing is ever explained about how the society actually works and how did it get to such a violent point. I remember how I was impressed at time by ”Lobster” that also did not explain a lot the main premise, but it had the main protagonist that was actually searching for his own voice and slowly rebelling. There was a conflict. Even the most meditation-like movies like Tarkovsky’s works have an inner conflict. I love movies where nothing happens. I adore Jim Jarmusch and his late works as well. But here?

”Never Let Me Go” bases its internal conflict not actually on the main premise about donors and cloning (trust me, it’s not a spoiler, if you watch the first 5 minutes carefully), but rather converts itself conveniently into a classic love triangle story, thus causing even more eyebrow-raising. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield do their best to make the story look passionate (the same can’t be said about Keira Knightley, although here she tries hard to do better than normally, but it’s not their fault that things just don’t work here.

The film is undeniably well shot and technically looks great – one can easy recognize a man with big experience and talent behind it. It’s not the weak point here. The soundtrack is intimate and suits the film well. For those who wonder who is actually Romanek – for sure you have seen one of his music videos, from the mid 80-s onward the American director has been working with all kinds of big artists, from Bowie and Madonna to Nine Inch Nails and Sonic Youth.

Worth watching? Decide by yourself. While the film is undeniably made with love, talent and good intention, it may leave a lot to be desired in terms of credibility and too neutral tone of the story. There is no drama and the spectators are just invited to contemplate the faraway glimpse of other version of our society brought to an extreme since pretty soon the movie concentrated on an intimate love triangle story rather than the delicate and violent main idea.

There’s a lot to praised in the movie – Carey Mulligan is amazing as only she can be, the whole setting is curious and makes interesting parallels (especially to animals). The attempt to follow the neutral mood and the absence of classic good/evil deserve applause, but in the desire of finding the distant tone the film actually forgets about real conflicts and emotions that are unavoidable in a story like this… at least, in the real world. Not in our world.

Watch also: ”Lobster” is undeniably deeper, more interesting and creative story. Or, if you want something big budget and with bang bang – ”The Island”. It’s actually pretty cool.


22 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go

  1. I read the book and it is amazing. Definitely a lot more ambiguous about the donor/cloning than it sounds like the film is. Thanks for the review as I probably won’t make the effort to watch it now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi knottedstar, thanks for stopping by. 😏
    Now you make me wanna read the book actually… How did you like the novel? Was it deep or rather had similar neutral tone and has it something to do with mono no aware that the director Romanek tried to portray? What is your favourite contemplation/reflection-like movies by the way?

    I wouldn’t take the movie completely off the list – but in fact if you read the book already then wouldn’t it be better to use time to explore something new ☺


  3. I remember first hearing about this in my college cinema. None of the marketing seemed to decide what kind of genre it was (sci-fi, drama, romance, all of the above?), so I could never decide whether I wanted to see it.

    Your review implies the feature retains the detached coldness of its marketing, which cools my enthusiasm to see it. Maybe I’ll get to it someday…

    Also — you *liked* The Island? Eh, I’m kind of allergic to most Michael Bay projects, myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It surely does retain a very cold tone. It’s a very minimal movie that tries to balance between various genres but finally slips into a weird love story. And the whole setting was barely credible.

      If you like minimal movies, have a look at it (although I have a feeling that in this case it’s probably not your cup of tea). The screenplay was also written by Garland, you know him well.

      The Island wasn’t a bad movie, but, of course, it wasn’t a masterpiece. I am sure it’s the best film Michael Bay has done up to date. It had at least several good things – pretty good acting (Johansson at that time wasn’t what she’s become now), good sci-fi premise (Never Let Me Go doesn’t have it) and it was, most importantly, entertaining. It wasn’t that deep (it’s still Bay, c’mon) but it had nothing to do with stuff he did later.


  4. I really loved this one, probably because for me what worked best was Keira’s performance – she is terrific actress who is always so natural. I thought the film was very moving and very original, but I only saw it once years ago. I need to rewatch it some time

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really wish I liked it more. Mark Romanek for sure tried to give this film a lot.

      It was original, as you say and is worth a good discussion as an example of careful film-making and cloning. The parallel with our animal farms can be seen too. Still, exploring more that world would be interesting that concentrating so much on the main characters, I wish the movie expanded more like “Lobster”, which still maintained a very minimal tone while the story became bigger.

      I couldn’t really accept the absorbing neutral tone and their passive acceptance though – it just… in my mind… goes again the human nature, but if I am too narrow-minded in this and somebody else can, it only means the world may be actually a better place than I thought.

      Which Knightley’s performances you admire most, except for “Atonement”?


      • I actually found Lobster to be more detached – I can understand the society accepting exploitation of others to save their lives but reducing people to animals just because they are single seemed stranger to me. I admired a lot of things in Lobster but the film felt…too extravagant and clinical to me to connect with the characters and the story.

        I really love all of Keira’s work, but she was just lovely in Imitation Game, almost my win for Supporting Actress that year


  5. Well, yes, it was a strange movie, and very poignant. I saw ”reducing people to animals just because there were single” as a metaphor. Because often this is what happens in real life with all kinds of people who are somewhat different from the majority – the are often seen as inferior and are mistreated, not physically, but psychologically.

    I also loved the scenes where some people were faking that they are a couple in order to avoid death. This kind of faking (if we don’t take it literally) has taken place numerous times in various forms.

    I admit that Lobster is a very extravagant movie, but it feels very integral. I also found it very original in terms of the story and its presentation. The acting and photography were excellent too.

    Maybe the second part of the movie felt more strained.

    I will take a closer look at Keira’s work following your advice! 🙂 I was actually going to see ”Domino” (2005) with Knightley and Rourke by Tony Scott.


  6. I agree that “The Lobster” and even “The Island” are better films. The reason I watched and ultimately bought DVD “Never Let Me Go” is because I loved the novel so much and am also a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro. Mulligan was the only thing to watch in the movie.


    • Wow! Now there are 2 people who think that ”The Island” was better than ”Never Let Me Go”. You’re right, Mulligan is always amazing. She may often seem unnoticeable, but just at first… she puts an incredible amount of subtlety in her roles.

      So you think the movie didn’t really express the novel’s spirit?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think few movies can really and truly express the novels they are based on, unless of course its Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ishiguro’s novel is hard to adapt because of these emotional undercurrents resonating throughout the novel. The film does its best and most of the scenes portraying the setting and having Mulligan succeed, but, for me, the film just does not have this “omg” factor I’ve had with the book. Somehow, I expected something more sublime, more poetic, more emotionally-devastating. I have high expectations when it comes to book-to-film adaptations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right. Several Stephen Kind’s adaptations were very good. Tarkovsky’s film were often based on novels, although he transformed them.

        I haven’t read Ishiguro’s novel though. Of all reviewers you one of the few that said the movie wasn’t as subtle as the novel. Good point. I felt it became too empty in its attempt to seem neutral.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The movie “Never Let Me Go” does transmit this vibe of coldness until the very end, if you know what I mean. I guess the producers thought that in this way they would tick their “dystopia” box, and be done with it. Not a very good decision, in my opinion. Have you seen the adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel “The Remains of the Day” with Anthony Hopkins? I thought it was better.


      • I don’t know. Both Andrew Macdonald and Alex Garland are very sensible to these kind of things normally, they did many very good movies that was more than the genre they were in (and they worked a lot together, 28 Days Later, Dredd, Ex Machina, Sunshine that you loved). Both of them often try to do things differently. I’d rather think of Mark Romanek, the director…

        I think Never Let Me Go needed somebody with Tarkovsky’s vision (Harmony Korine also comes to my mind). Stalker was much slower, but it was so tense, deep and full of…life.

        No, I haven’t seen it. Did you review it?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that’s a good point – the director of Never Let Me Go is to blame 🙂 I didn’t review The Remains of the Day – but there we actually had the director who had plenty of experience in making films based on books.


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