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Originally published Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Never Let Me Go': Dark secret lurks behind youthful relationships in this unusual sci-fi film

"Never Let Me Go," the film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name, features Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling and Carey Mulligan, and is directed by Mark Romanek. The film has a lush, Merchant-Ivory look, and, indeed, that team directed Ishiguro's previously filmed novel, "The Remains of the Day." There's a dark secret behind the plot, which is science fiction, but the movie doesn't feel at all like sci-fi.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Never Let Me Go,' with Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Sally Hawkins. Directed by Mark Romanek, from a screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. 103 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality and nudity. Several theaters.

There's no question that Mark Romanek's haunting "Never Let Me Go" is science fiction, but it's like none you've ever seen before; it's like a science-fiction film made by Merchant-Ivory. Kazuo Ishiguro's second filmed novel (his first was "The Remains of the Day" — brought to the screen, in fact, by Merchant-Ivory) is the sort that seems, at first read, unfilmable. It hinges on a shocking plot development that sneaks up on you early, and, consisting mostly of the memories of a mysterious young woman who has led a quiet life, it's an not especially eventful film.

Read no further if you want no indication of the film's "secret" (which isn't really secret, as it's clear to anyone who's read the book, seen the trailer or read any of a number of recent articles about the film). But though there's something to be said for the surprise element — in the book, it hits you with a quiet jolt — the movie works beautifully even if you know what's coming and knowing it makes the film's strangely beautiful early scenes even more poignant. We're shown an idyllic-looking school, Hailsham, in the English countryside, filled with beautiful, sad-eyed children who seem to know too many secrets. One they don't know, but are soon told by a sympathetic teacher (Sally Hawkins, wonderfully vivid in a brief role), concerns their future, about which I will simply say that they are not children, and that their lives are already dictated for them.

By the film's middle section, the three children at its center are now young adults: soft-spoken, wistful Kathy (Carey Mulligan), forthright Ruth (Keira Knightley), dreamy Tommy (Andrew Garfield). They graduate and are sent to The Cottages, where they will learn about their fates; instead, they learn something unplanned about love and friendship and loss — the sort of thing that even humans struggle with. "Everyone seemed wiser and more worldly than us," muses Kathy, and she's right. In one vivid scene, five Hailsham graduates go to a cafe and find themselves unable to order; the real world is a mystery to them.

"Never Let Me Go" floats along from one lovely image to another. (The beautiful cinematography, with its lush greens and disappointed browns, is by Adam Kimmel, who shot "Capote"). Its mood stays subdued and sad, and the film won't be to everyone's taste. But within that quietness lie some beautiful performances, particularly by Garfield and the gifted Mulligan. In the film's bookending later scenes Kathy looks, without special makeup, decades older; it's as if the world has passed a cruel hand over her face, marking her. Mulligan, quietly resigned to her character's fate, brings warmth to the cool tragedy of the material — making it all the more devastating.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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