The challenge this week is how to convince you to go see “Never Let Me Go” without ruining its surprises for you. The film looks deceptively normal: It’s a love triangle with Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan set in 1970s and ’80s England. But — and this is a huge but — there’s one slight difference between their world and our own.
Here’s what I can tell you: The film is based on a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and like his earlier work, “The Remains of the Day,” it focuses on a particularly English institution — in this case, boarding school. England has always convinced its ruling class, bred in the cloisters of Eton and Winchester, that they were special, but Ishiguro imagines a public school that indoctrinates children to serve a very different — and chilling — purpose in life.
I hesitate to call the story “science fiction,” but it is, in the style of Philip K. Dick’s best works, such as “Valis” or “A Scanner Darkly,” where all that’s needed are one or two well-placed tweaks to existing reality. Ishiguro posits a modern dystopia where the big scientific breakthrough was not in nuclear but genetic engineering. The story follows three children — sensitive Kathy, troubled Tommy and headstrong Ruth — as they bond at their reclusive boarding school, Halisham, and then try to cope as young adults, in and out of each others’ arms, when they discover what their breeding has been for.
The screen adaptation is directed rather faithfully by Mark Romanek, who, after debuting with the cult classic “Static” in 1985, spent two decades exiled to music-video production before returning to film with “One Hour Photo” in 2002. “Never Let Me Go” bears little of the visual pyrotechnics of an MTV-oriented director, opting instead for the immaculately lit classicism of director of photography Adam Kimmel, but Romanek has clearly developed a keen sense of how to deploy music. The film’s score, by the ever-busy Rachel Portman (“Emma”), is all sweeping, heart-tugging strings that insinuate themselves into nearly every scene
Romanek’s film is a slow-burner, but at a certain point, some magic combination of Mulligan’s sad, sad half-smile and Portman’s killer strings crack open your tear ducts and render you a helpless, quivering mess. Feel-good film-lovers need not apply.
A n unmarried mother expecting a child ponders a fairly reasonable question in “Away We Go.” “Burt,” she asks her partner, amid the clutter of a house that looks like a particularly shabby dorm room, “are we f-ckups? I mean, we’re 34, and we haven’t even figured out the basic stuff, how to live.” No, we’re not, says Burt, but she eyes the cardboard they call a windowpane. “I’m afraid we might be f-ckups” concludes Verona.
The viewer will tend to agree. With a navel-gazing script by the king of self-obsession, author Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”), an oh-so-sensitive soundtrack by Nick Drake wannabe Alexi Murdoch and a story centered on an aimless, thrift-store-clad couple in their 30s who have yet to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, “Away We Go” is almost tailor-made for the Gen-Y demographic.
Burt (John Krasinski, “The Office”) and Verona (Maya Rudolph, of “Saturday Night Live” fame) start off in Colorado, where they had moved to be near Burt’s parents for guidance in raising a child. But when the parents suddenly announce they’re moving to Belgium, all bets are off, and the couple hop around the continent — from Tuscon to Madison and Montreal — seeing how other friends and relatives are functioning (or not) as families, and trying to decide where to put down their own roots. It’s a whimsical, episodic road trip similar to Bill Murray’s in “Broken Flowers,” enlivened by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a morally superior new-age mom with a phobia of strollers, and Allison Janney as the abusive-alcoholic wife from hell.
Self-obsessing is a particularly unattractive trait unless leavened by a sense of self-deprecation — something Woody Allen always got and Sarah Palin never will — and Burt and Verona’s travails can sometimes seem a bit wearying, especially her refusal to get married due to, uh, issues. But despite what we may expect from director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), “Away We Go” never takes itself too seriously, and wears its themes of rootlessness lightly.