Two young Oscar nominees and another ascendant star anchor this very curious project from missing-in-action filmmaker Mark Romanek. Based on the novel of the same name by The Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is an air-quote sci-fi drama with absolutely none of the usual genre trappings, instead grafted onto a mopey period piece love triangle.
The year is 1978, and the setting is a seemingly idyllic English boarding school where the well-mannered kids all live in The Village-esque seclusion. The rub, as they come to find out too soon from a chatty teacher? They’re being raised for their organs, so when they come of age in their 20s or 30s, they’ll make their donations and shuffle off this mortal coil. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield, newly cast as Spider-Man) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) eventually leave the shelter of their school, sent to a sort of halfway house. The latter two are a couple, and Kathy, crushing on Tommy but eventually taking work as a counselor of enablement, has to decide between moving on and reconnecting with Tommy, filing for a deferment that may give them a coupe years together.
In both his groundbreaking music video work and 2002’s One Hour Photo, Romanek has shown a remarkable gift for tapping into personal isolation and despair, which he plumbs with only mixed results here. Despite all the morose signposts, the film never really catches fire as a doomed love story, which is clearly the target for which it’s aiming. Furthermore, it seems antithetical to the very nature of the conceit that there’s no particular angsty rebellion over their forced expiration, but that’s the case here. (Even the language they use is divorced from any personal feeling; final mortal donation is “completion,” not dying.) Perhaps that’s part of the delicate, emotionally shattering nature of the source material, adapted by Alex Garland, but if none of the characters can be roused to try to truly escape their fate, why should an audience care? (Fox Searchlight, R, 103 minutes)