Mark Romanek specializes in ascetic dread. One Hour Photo, his most famous movie, stars Robin Williams as an employee of a big chain photo department with a Dark Secret (since he’s played by Robin Williams, the secret is about as secret as blood stain on a nurse’s skirt). Never Let Me Go, his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, also boasts a snail’s-pace narrative drive, images that glisten as if Romanek scrubbed the camera filter with Comet, and a nameless dread. We wait for Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield to realize that (a) they’re clone specimens bred for organ harvesting (b) Garfield is a most uninteresting point in a love triangle.
Because Ishiguro’s novels depend on the reliability of their narrators, finding a cinematic correlative is impossible; the screenwriters must conventionalize the plots. The Merchant Ivory team did a pedestrian version of The Remains of the Day which, while entertaining, drains the movie of irony; instead of evaluating Stevens the butler’s blinkered sexuality and ignorance of evil, Merchant Ivory unwittingly made his repression attractive, so that even when an actress as vividly miscast as Emma Thompson accepts the task of removing the ice from Stevens’ balls, we think it’s okay for Stevens to reject her overtures because Stevens is, after all, played by Anthony Hopkins, who does repression like Colin Firth does angst.
As a novel Never Let Me Go never got me. Ishiguro’s meticulousness this time came off as fastidiousness; imagine a Philip K. Dick idea finished by Joseph Conrad. Its deliberate qualities defeat Romanek and his cast, who act as if they’re disappointed they weren’t in a teen movie. In places it evoked Andrew Nichol’s Gattaca, another future dystopia with an attractive cast but with a trashier core (a good thing). Rewatching Romanek’s excellent video for the underrated Bowie single “Jump They Say,” I thought I saw his real talent: chopping up ho-hum transcriptions of urban despair.