By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Acclaimed novels making forgettable movies are nothing new. Revolutionary Road, The Shipping News, Evening and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are among the most notorious disappointments for readers.
Add to that list Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek's dishwater dull version of Kazuo Ishiguro's book that Time magazine named the best novel of the past decade. Fox Searchlight wants everyone to know that, trumpeting the book's acclaim as much as the movie's fetching actors.
Imagine a stuffy Merchant Ivory production blended with muted Michael Crichton sci-fi and you have Never Let Me Go, at least as it plays on screen. Romanek never finds the balance of those themes as well as Ishiguro apparently did. The movie is 90 minutes of stiff-upper-lip longing followed by 10 minutes of abruptly interesting resolution, then end credits that the film didn't compel me to stick around for.
The plot revolves around a boarding school for cloned children who are cultivated to donate their internal organs, a medical breakthrough saving millions of lives. The children are taught but not too much. What's the use since they'll be dead in a few short years?
Three children grow into young adults feeling bummed out about their fate. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is the plain, practical one. Ruth (Keira Knightley) has a wild side the school hasn't entirely suppressed. Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is the awkward boy — Garfield plays him as faintly brain damaged — Kathy and Ruth have a crush on. The love triangle allows plenty of chances for furtive glances and Mulligan's on-cue tear ducts to operate.
The turning point arrives when the trio is allowed to get a taste of the real world outside school gates, kind of like the Amish tradition of rumspringa. They move in with other boarding school refugees who speak of an exemption to the organ donor rules: If two students can prove they are in love, they'll be allowed to postpone their first donation and live longer happily.
Is it true? If so, which woman will Tommy choose to extend his life? Never Let Me Go pretty much answers that question in the first scene. From there, it's a long slog to learn how things ended up that way. Romanek, an American who cut his teeth on music videos and One Hour Photo, does a decent job of imitating the austere settings and chilly sophistication of British period melodrama. I don't crave British period melodramas, so that doesn't impress.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or ((727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.