Here are two things you should know about me before reading my impressions of “Never Let Me Go.” One: I went to boarding school in New England. Two: Our mascot was a pelican. Yes. Now imagine what it has been like for me as a grown-up in this world, forever unsure whether to pity myself or kick my own ass.
The pelican, not exactly an intimidator on the sports field, is known instead — at least in some circles — as a divinely or perversely charitable creature, ever willing to draw its own blood as sustenance for its offspring. (See also: Jesus Christ.) As such, it top-heavily flapped into mind while I watched “Never Let Me Go.”
To give it away, the basic story is this: A love triangle forms at a boarding school for organ-donor clones. Poignancy ensues. For the record: This boarding school is in old England. Also for the record: To give it away is not to spoil it. For one thing, the very notion of the spoiler is a conceit to the dullard’s view that plot is all. Here the manner is more literary, with a more elevated purpose, to ask: Why bother being a lover, an artist? For another thing, the basic story already has been out in this world for five years. Before being a movie, “Never Let Me Go” was a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the same specialist of stately yearning, born in Japan, raised in England, who also wrote the novel and inevitable Merchant-Ivory fodder “The Remains of the Day.”
In “Never Let Me Go”‘s case, the moviefication was done by screenwriter Alex Garland, the same specialist of pseudo-posh science fiction who wrote the Danny Boyle film “Sunshine.” And here the director is Mark Romanek, who obviously has watched a Merchant-Ivory film or two in his day, and knows what Garland wants, which apparently is to leave the movie seeming stifled by its own pretty dignity.
The leads — Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, the latter occasionally channeling a young Anthony Perkins — show good command of their lofty sci-fi source material. It’s shrewd casting, actually, and may be useful to jaded American audiences. In one fell swoop, “Never Let Me Go” manages to extend the Knightley continuum of literary period-piece hottie allure; to further elaborate on Mulligan’s exquisite, uneasy beauty of ruined innocence; and to naturalize the newcomer Garfield, whose other recent crypto-sci-fi parables of sensitive souls finding and losing their place in the world include “The Social Network” and Spike Jonze’s wistful short film of doomed robot love, “I’m Here.” Plus, Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins appear in brief but memorable roles. So the thing has credentials.
Yet you come away wondering what Tim Burton might have done with the same basic concept and some puppets.
The problem with “Never Let Me Go” is that its pretext is a medical and political horror that’s never fully acknowledged as such, as if reticence on the matter might actually be more telling. Well, it isn’t. Romanek diverts his energy into modulating costumes and hairstyles to indicate the passage of time. Only gingerly do he and Garland touch on the novel’s other inherent literary quandaries. How do you make meaning from a highly sheltered life? And what if your naive notion of self-actualization through service to others gets perverted it into something monstrous?
This dainty little quasi-allegory — of fatally protected, soul-stunted elites and their trickle-downs to the lower orders — could inspire a fine satire, now that I think of it. Maybe one of my fellow pelicans is up to the task?