Before a half hour of this film was over, I was struck by something that had nothing to do with the story, which was totally involving on its own terms. I thought — “How do they do it? How do the British keep coming up with these child actors who are already more poised, unaffected and skillful than many adult American actors who have been in the business for years?”
I think the reason is found in the word “business”. American films are dominated by the need to tell a story in multiple levels of action — especially special effects and jolts of spectacle from costuming, rapid editing, music and — even in serious films — cheap sight gags, because that is considered the best way to make a profit. Films that depend on plain, honest acting, where people actually talk to each other, are considered too risky.
Such actor-dominated films are undoubtedly cheaper to make than the special effects films, but marketing them is so hit-and-miss that filmmakers are intimidated, and feel that the story has to sweep across a broad, less demanding audience, with major stars and big money effects, in order to get financing. Furthermore, the reviews can kill a film outright. What if the critics are only lukewarm, or if two of these small films open at the same time and cancel each other out? Too bad! Such things have happened, and it never fails to chill investors.
But I think there is another reason, and it has to do with the status of the acting profession in England, as well as the cultivated tastes of British filmgoers. It seems that there is a dependable audience there for straight fine acting, and even child actors are encouraged to follow in that tradition. Of course, this means a real training in live theater, and only doing films later on. But even so, their child actors seem to have star quality before any extensive theater experience.
I remember seeing Rupert Everett and Colin Firth for the first time in Another Country in 1983. Barely out of their teens, they conveyed such ease and confidence that it made me aware of Britain’s superiority even then. I remember, too, that even the young boys in small roles had that presence.
The child actors in Never Let Me Go are essential for the success of the film. They are Izzie Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purcell. They establish the relationships shared by the three main characters, and we have to accept, without question, their sudden shift into their adult portrayers.
And we do. So now the big guns: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and, most devastatingly, Andrew Garfield. They deliver the full impact of this strange, but penetrating tale, under the magnificent direction of Mark Romanek. Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel, which I haven’t read, creates a fantasized Britain of the recent past where people are raised from birth to be organ donors, and destined for an early and pitiful death. Alex Garland has wisely chosen to avoid “explanations” of this society in his adaptation; you believe it because you believe in Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, who are so achingly alive that their world cannot be anything but real. You are aware that every element of the film is stripped down and refined to let the story advance by the truth and intimacy of its acting. It is a treasure.