I had two choices at the Curzon this afternoon (because I work on Saturday mornings, I often give myself Friday afternoon off in lieu and treat myself to a film): True Grit and Never Let Me Go, both preceded by hype, both packed with actors I like, both weighed down with awards and/or nominations. I chose the latter, which, on a drizzly afternoon when I was a bit tired anyway due to early starts, was the wrong choice. At least a big, fat western would have woken me up a bit.
Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (the impressive One Hour Photo and, among a long CV of pop videos, the magnificent Hurt), and adapted for the screen from the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by Alex Garland, who can also write a novel, it has all the hallmarks of quality. It has subtle titles; it is bleached out; it is slow; it drip-feeds information rather than – like, say, Outcasts – beats you around the face with signposts; and its acting is subtle and quiet. This is not a film to please dimwits. However, it is a film to displease me. Having read the rave reviews I am now concerned that it may be me, rather than the film. While editing the reviews of the new releases for Radio Times this week, I suggested we take out mention of the story’s central premise from the review, because to know it is to have a huge slice of your potential enjoyment taken away before it starts. (Most reviews I’ve read give it away – at least Sight & Sound warned of spoilers in red letters – so if you don’t know it, read nothing. There will be no giveaways here.)
It’s possible that knowing the “twist” (it’s not a twist that comes at the end, which is why I use speechmarks) reduced my own enjoyment of Never Let Me Go. It’s also arguable that the opening scene, although elliptical, gives it away too. Either way, a lot unfolds from a seemingly benign first act in a very measured and intelligent way. It moves at its own pace and gathers to a sort of climax, although not one that’s climactic in the popcorn-munching sense. Am I being vague enough? All you need to know is that the action hinges on three performances: Carey Mulligan (whose character Kathy also narrates), Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. I am an admirer of the work of all three, even Knightley’s. Unfortunately, we don’t see their characters as adults until about midway through, as the first act takes place at an enigmatic English boarding school – so we’re stuck with child actors, none of whom are bad, but all of whom are children, and as such, an elongated tease before we get to Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield.
By the time the action catches up with our heroes in young adulthood, it’s been a pretty dull ride. It was only when I emerged into the light from the film’s overriding browns and greys, that I realised what had failed to ignite. It’s a classic case of film-based-on-a-novel. I can imagine its langourous pace and gentle act of unfolding working superbly on the page, when you are forced to imagine it all; likewise, the eloquent narration of Kathy is designed to be read, not listened to, or at least, not listened to in the context of a dramatisation that’s intended to make fictional events real. I’m not against narration per se – unfashionably, I like Blade Runner with the voiceover – but it can pall when there’s this much of it. Garland apparently wrote the script before the novel was published, that’s how certain he was that it would make a film. Well, it does. But my guess is that it makes a better book. Damn, I feel as if I must be some kind of philistine for not getting much out of this film. It has not affected my love of the actors, or the filmmakers. We just passed each other by, somehow. I wonder how those who have read the book will feel?
Still, True Grit tomorrow. That was a novel too. Narrated by a female character.