Kazuo Ishiguro's masterful 2005 novel Never Let Me Go has left itself ingrained in my mind. The book -about three seemingly typical adolescents who attend an alarmingly atypical boarding school in the English countryside- is a towering literary achievement, for it's affect is related utterly by an expert mechanics of language and an erudite and unique voice. Rich in theme and character the tale is never driven by hard conflict, but by slowly mounting intrigue and quietly devastating inevitabilities. Spare as the plot may be the final pages are heartbreaking and the whole is an unforgettable work of modern fiction.
Now a film, the essence of Never Let Me Go has surely been lost in adaptation. Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) has made a valiant and admirable effort in his attempt to translate Ishiguro's brilliant prose to the screen, but the author's minimalist story -teamed with slowly revealing dread and powerfully evocative realizations about love, fate, and purpose- have failed to come to life under Romanek's guidance.
The story is narrated in the film and the novel by Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), as an adult, looking back at her childhood when she and her two best friends Ruth and Tommy (Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) were students at Hailsham -a strange English boarding school where the students never go home and are encouraged to keep their insides as clean and healthy as possible. All the students at Hailsham are there for a very specific purpose.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Kimmel and delicately helmed by director Romanek but that's the problem: delicate can easily become underwhelming. As the story progresses and the three leads leave Hailsham and move to "the cottages" (a distant farm where others just like them are kept together), it becomes clear that the many layers of the book -including coming-of-age and sci-fi elements as well as a love triangle and themes of fatalism and loss- haven't been done justice. The script attempts to touch on everything ever so lightly and as a result can't scratch the surface of anything especially the novel's fascinatingly tragic characters. Without Ishiguro's graceful words the introspective and insightful Kathy becomes sleepy, the opinionated Ruth becomes distant, and the tempermental but sweet Tommy becomes thick.
By the time the three split up as young adults -each on a separate but parallel path towards their collective destiny- and then finally reunite, the mysteries of the book were only beginning to unravel, but the film decides to give away it's secrets so early on, that without interesting characters to back it up there is very little left to care about.
If Ishiguro's novel was a windstorm of emotional ferocity than Romanek's film is a baby's breath, you may hardly feel it. It's a decent movie in it's own right due to it's careful beauty, but as an adaptation of such a tremendous work it not only doesn't cut it, but achieves an opposite effect. It's entirely dismissible where the novel was entirely unforgettable.