Having recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel, I was eager to see how writer Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) and director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) would adapt the sober sci-fi drama, Never Let Me Go.

The translation is elegant to behold, but much of the character development has been cut out. This results in a crippled third act, in which Romanek was clearly aiming for the profound emotional reflection found in the novel.

The story is split up into three time periods. The first is at Hailsham, a boarding school where we meet Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Kathy (Carey Mulligan), and Ruth (Keira Knightley). As details about their lives are nonchalantly revealed, we start to get the big picture of their purpose. Without spoiling, we jump in time to see the trio endure two more difficult stages.

The problem with the adaptation is the weak foundation we are given for this triangular relationship. Where did this love/hate come from? Why should we care? These questions are explained by little quips from Kathy’s narration in the novel. Here, it is rare when she jumps in.

This leaves the images to speak for themselves, which Romanek handles with care to a certain extent. It is all gorgeously captured by cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Lars and the Real Girl, Capote) and the locations and production design are exactly what I imagined in my head while reading the novel.

The vague nature of the plot is also transferred here, which is something I admired. We don’t delve into details nor epic revelations on what is exactly is happening. All the information we are given is simply seen through the eyes of our questioning trio.

This makes it much less about the rich relationship, which is the central drive in the novel, and more about the sense of time and eventual “completion” of our lives. Romanek freely makes ample leaps through the life of the characters, resulting in effective reflection of our own.

Being grateful for what we have, whether it is for 30 or 100 years, is the strongest theme of this adaptation. Perpetuated by another stand-out performance by Mulligan, after her Oscar-nomination (and deserved win) for An Education, it’s a shame the other characters are reduced to very little.

Garfield does great work, but is barely a presence in the first two acts. When he starts to become more of a central character, it’s too late. Knightley is equally solid, but comes across as some sort of one-note evil force for much of the film. The continually evolving relationship triangle I loved is not here.

With Mark Romanek’s second feature in 8 years, he is able to visually capture the cold, systematic nature of the source material. It’s easy to praise modern sci-fi told in such an effortless way, but I wish the characters could live up the enthralling premise. Never Let Me Go is a bold film that may plant a few ideas in your mind, but Romanek and Garland never let them fully bloom.

7.5 out of 10

Never Let Me Go hits theaters September 15th.

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