(2010) Science Fiction (Fox Searchlight) Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Nathalie Richard, Andrea Riseborough, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Domhnall Gleeson, Kate Bowes Renna, David Sterne. Directed by Mark Romanek
Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese writer of extraordinary delicacy. Best known for Remains of the Day, he creates landscapes of melancholy and fleeting joy that remain with the reader not so much in the mind but as an ache in the heart. The novel on which this film is based was called by Time Magazine the novel of the Decade for the decade just past; it may be his best work to date.
But it is also fiendishly difficult to sum up the plot without giving too much away about the nature of the story and the ending, both of which are to the benefit of the viewer if left unsaid. There are elements of alternate world science fiction that make it even more relatable to our world, so it gets the sci-fi classification but trust me there are no bug-eyed aliens here. This is an all-too-human story that begins with a what-if postulation and ends with an examination of destiny and mortality. It is a stunning work that doesn’t always translate well to the screen, although it does have some moments of grace and heartbreak.
Kathy (Meikle-Small), Ruth (Purnell) and Tommy (Rowe) are students at the Hailsham Boarding School in an era that is both by-gone and modern. Rather than being taught history, English and mathematics, they are taught instead courtesy, duty and warned never to leave the beautifully bucolic but ultimately restrictive confines of the school. Being children, they are curious about what lies beyond the gates although such curiosity is discouraged by the school’s ramrod-stiff headmistress (Rampling).
The artistic Tommy’s paintings are collected by the mysterious Madame (Richard) for apparent exhibition elsewhere. Tommy is the object of delicious affection by Kathy who yearns for him in a way that is as sweet and pure as only an adolescent girl can yearn. However, Ruth horns her way in and winds up becoming a couple with Tommy which wounds Kathy deeply but she is the sort who simply turns her cheek and gets on with things. However, it creates a wedge between the three friends.
As an adult, Kathy (Mulligan) has taken a caretaker role in her life. Ruth (Knightley), realizing that she has come between a genuine love between her friends, is anxious to make amends while Tommy (Garfield) looks for a way out of a desperate situation.
Once again, I’m being deliberately vague so as not to spoil the movie although Romanek manages to do that himself – the tragedy hanging over the novel and the film is revealed far too early on (the novel waits until about halfway through before it is revealed; the movie, like a child unable to keep a secret, waits all of ten minutes). Still, he does one thing that is noteworthy; he manages to create screen images as beautiful as Ishiguri’s words.
Knightley, Mulligan and Garfield are three of the best young actors in movies today with Oscar nominations and acclaimed performances between them that would create an impressive enough list for any threesome. Garfield, whose lopsided grin is appealing to those who find young men’s lopsided grins attractive, hides so much pain and suffering behind that grin that it may make you weep, shows enough of that background pain in his eyes. Mulligan’s kindness is heroic in the face of her own pain, both within her life situation but at the betrayal of her love by Ruth and Tommy, although her capacity to forgive is spectacular to say the least.
It should also be noted that the juvenile actors who play Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as young boarding school students give heroically advanced performances for actors of their tender years. Particularly Meikle-Small, who holds up impressively well with her adult counterpart Mulligan who is no slouch. There is one scene in which Meikle-Small listens to a romantic pop song alone in her bedroom and shows that sweet adolescent yearning for love and romance that young girls wish for, to be swept up off their feet by dashing young princes who are cute and oh so amazing! and often never live up to those sweet expectations. It is a marvelous moment that I do believe every woman who has ever been there can relate to.
Those of you who have read the novel will know that it may not be possible for a movie to live up to the original source material and that’s okay. This movie does a pretty fine job of bringing what may well turn out to be Ishiguro’s masterwork to the screen, which is really all you can ask. If only Romanek had resisted the temptation to tip the novel’s hand too early.
WHY RENT THIS: Bittersweet and beautiful. Strong performances from its young and juvenile casts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too bleak for some. Film’s twist and ending spoiled too early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan had to learn how to drive for the film. She took a two-week crash course and failed the driving test. Her driving scenes were therefore filmed on private roads, the only places she was allowed to drive.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are collections of Romanek’s on-set photography, Tommy’s artwork and the graphics extolling Hailsham and the program it represents.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $15M production budget; didn’t earn back it’s production costs during its theatrical run..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Island
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sleepwalk With Me