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Expertly acted, impeccably photographed, intelligently written, even intermittently touching, the film is also too parched and ponderous to connect with a large audience. Fox Searchlight is hoping for awards consideration for the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s acclaimed novel, but this will depend on the reviews, which are likely to be split between those who consider the film a bleak masterpiece and others who find it straining so mightily for aesthetic perfection that it fails to provide a gripping narrative. In any case, the downbeat nature of the material will prove a challenge at the box office.
Ishiguro’s tale centers on the relationship of three young people — Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). They have no last names because they are not ordinary people. Gradually, we learn that they are scientific specimens, created in the laboratory and raised in order to provide their organs to desperately ill patients. Ishiguro’s novel was praised for translating his typical moral and psychological concerns to a science fictional tale. “Never” is not set in the future but in a parallel universe where medical experimentation has been taking place without the knowledge of most ordinary people.
The first problem with the movie is that it never completely lays out the logic of this parallel universe. The cloning process itself is shrouded in mystery. Screenwriter Alex Garland probably wanted us to share the limited knowledge of the characters, but this idea could have been maintained while providing just a touch more crucial clarity for the audience.
Another problem is that the theme of the dangers of medical experimentation is a rather tired mainstay of speculative fiction, going back at least to “Frankenstein,” one of the first horror stories to underscore the risks of tampering with Mother Nature. This theme is less startling than the filmmakers may realize, which would be less of a problem if the message were not delivered in such a solemn, portentous manner.
What does save the film intermittently is the poignancy of the love story, which is bolstered by the skill of the performances. The film opens at a boarding school, where three excellent child actors — Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe – embody the three protagonists, and Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins contribute vivid supporting turns as teachers. Even at this early stage, a romantic triangle is brewing. Kathy and Tommy are drawn to each other, but the manipulative Ruth interferes and tries to claim Tommy for herself. When the characters grow up, the three stars perform impressively. Mulligan is luminous as the leader of the pack, and Garfield plays his more simple-minded character with marvelous expressiveness. Knightley manages to create a three-dimensional villain.
The most affecting theme of the film is the notion that even among these scientifically engineered creatures, love provides meaning to their shortened existence. Mulligan and Garfield play their parts with such conviction that we get caught up in their doomed romance.
The design of this familiar but slightly surreal universe is well rendered, and some of the visual compositions are haunting. But the pacing is fearfully slow, and the elliptical storytelling works against audience involvement. The issues of medical ethics are undeniably timely, but dramatically, the film, rather like the beautiful Frankenstein monsters on display, only comes alive in fits and starts.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Sept. 17 (Fox Searchlight)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell, Charlie Rowe
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Based on the novel by: Kazuo Ishiguro
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Executive producers: Alex Garland, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Adam Kimmel
Production designer: Mark Digby
Music: Rachel Portman
Costume designers: Rachael Fleming, Steven Noble
Editor: Barney Pilling
Rated R, 103 minutes
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