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Because the clones' time is short, their life cycle adolescence and old age, maturity and degeneration, first love and last love is dramatically compressed into 17 years. Screenwriter Alex Garland calls the film "an epic in a nutshell." That allows for compression of casting as well. The main roles, first as kids, then as young adults, are played by just two sets of actors: Kathy by Izzy Meikle-Small and Mulligan, Tommy by Charlie Rowe and Garfield, Ruth by Ella Purnell and Knightley. It's a trio of Britain's finest young stars and, in time, their possible successors.
Ishiguro is quick to scotch any firestorms about cloning, though he says news reports of Dolly the sheep helped him find a locus for the novel. "I don't want people to come away from the film thinking, I wonder if we should continue experimenting with stem cells. That's not the intent."
Inside its robot heart, Never Let Me Go is a star-crossed-love story of a Romeo and two Juliets with a sweethearts' first kiss so long deferred that when it arrives, it feels like a thunderclap. But Romeo and Juliet? Then this must also be a death story. Or as Romanek says, "It's about the brevity of our time on the planet. And when we become aware of how briefly we're here, how do we make the best use of our time? And how do we not come to the end of our life and regret our choices? That's the film I was making. The science-fiction aspects are just a delivery system for those ideas."
From Page to Screen
Garland, himself the acclaimed writer of novels The Beach and The Tesseract, received an advance copy of the book from Ishiguro, a fellow Londoner. "I nearly called him halfway through to ask if I could buy the rights," Garland says. "But I knew I had to get to the end. I finished it, called him and said, 'It's really good, and I want to make it into a film.'" Adapting it, he recalls, was "a breeze. The imaginative work was done by Ishiguro. But as an emotional process, it was terrifying. The sense of responsibility was enormous, especially because he's a friend."
Ishiguro was pleased. "The film has a near perfect structure," he says. "Alex got it into three acts, and it works very well that way. I told him, 'Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.' But what he saw in it and what I saw in it very closely matched."
Romanek, better known for directing videos (Madonna's "Rain," Michael Jackson's "Scream," Johnny Cash's "Hurt") than for his single feature film (One Hour Photo), might have been thought to possess too burly a sensibility for this delicate material. Yet he imparts a mood so subtle, with so many emotional cataclysms conveyed through a glance or a few tears, that the film might have been made by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.
The nuance is both emotional and visual. "There are no primary colors anywhere in the film," the director says. "The color palette for Hailsham we stole from Lindsay Anderson's If....," a 1968 fable of rebellion in an English public school. Romanek also researched the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, "which is the beauty of things that are broken and worn and rusted and imperfect. So production designer Mark Digby and I, we just wabi-sabied everything. The dried flowers are an example of that. There's nothing new in the film. Everything shows the wear of time."
A Quiet Tragedy
The actors, though, are fresh and blooming. At 25, Mulligan has impressed on TV, stage and the silver screen. When Peter Rice, then the head of Fox Searchlight, saw her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education at Sundance, he e-mailed Romanek, "Hire the genius Mulligan." The young genius saw Kathy as a gift and a challenge. "My tendency is to emote all the time," she says, "but I had to play someone who doesn't say exactly what she feels to be comfortable in silence." As the film's focal figure and narrator, Mulligan makes those silences eloquent, the heartbreak nearly audible.
If Mulligan is the Brit girl to get, Garfield, 27, is the hot young guy. He has already co-starred with Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs and with Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and will soon be seen in the Facebook movie The Social Network and as the next Spider-Man. As Tommy, Garland channels the shy smile and coltish charm of the young Tony Perkins minus the Psycho streak. He admires Tommy's "sense of purity," he says. "But he lets himself be corrupted. He betrays himself in that he doesn't go for what he wants."
Knightley, at 25 the doyenne of the group after starring in Bend It Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean, has the least sympathetic role. "It's horrendous," she says of the acquisitive Ruth. "Through your own jealousy and your own hatred and your own anger, you've ended up completely empty." Knightley calls the story "a tragedy, I suppose. A quiet tragedy. Gosh, I shouldn't say 'quiet tragedy.' That doesn't really sell it very well. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just the way life is."
Here's the way life is: whether we live to be 30 or 90, we all have a death sentence hanging over us. As Garfield says, "What's important in our lives is that we make the best of this, that we immerse fully in love." Never Let Me Go is a plea to live and love well, so that long before our time is up, we will truly have reached completion. That way, we can live forever. Reported by Jumana Farouky / London