Some film directors come from television. Some grit their teeth in theater. Some come to it after a long time behind the pen, writing screenplays for hire, and hell, nowadays some even come from in front of the camera, trying to jump from acting into the world of feature film directing. However, this generation has seen the world of commercials and particularly music videos become a hot bed for some of the greatest directorial talent in all of the film world. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, David Fincher and Jonathan Glazer all made the world of music videos and commercials their breeding ground for what have been some of the most rewarding and culturally significant careers in the film world today.
And then there’s Mark Romanek. Often forgotten when discussing the great music video auteurs turned feature directors simply due to the fact he only has three features to his name, Romanek has become a cult darling for his trio of great features, and also the fact that getting a new Mark Romanek film appears to be a true cinematic event.
Originally starting off his career attempting to be a feature director with 1989’s Static, that trajectory didn’t seem like it was working out for the filmmaker, ultimately guiding him to the world of music videos, where he would go on to shoot some of the most iconic and important music videos of this generation, ranging from the black and white masterpiece that is Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” to what is arguably the greatest music video ever made, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Jumping back to the world of features with One Hour Photo, an underrated gem of a thriller, it would be another 8 years before he’d take another stab at directing a film after that 2002 gem, and thankfully, that near-decade off gave him enough fuel to craft an absolute masterpiece.
An adaptation of the beloved Kazuo Ishiguro novel, 2010 brought the release of Romanek’s take on Never Let Me Go, a haunting tale of love and what truly makes one human. We are introduced to three friends coming of age in a boarding school that’s not exactly what it seems. Secluded, so much so that the children fear for their lives even thinking of stepping off the grounds, we meet three schoolmates; Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, just three of the many students here who are told that they have been chosen to live special, albeit short, lives. See, these aren’t normal children. Told that keeping themselves “healthy inside is of paramount importance,” near the middle of the first act the film’s plot takes a decidedly science fiction turn, and yet one that is done with such truth and conviction that it not only seems plausible but does ultimately help amp up the film’s already heightened emotions. With a breathtaking script from Alex Garland and three career-best performances from the likes of Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, Romanek’s film is a melancholy and deeply haunting meditation on love and the human experience.
As a feature film director, this is Romanek’s greatest work to date. Getting gorgeous work out of cinematographer Adam Kimmel, the film is Romanek’s most mature not only narratively, but aesthetically. Quiet and thoughtful as much as it is thought provoking, Romanek’s camera never strives to take attention away from the science fiction-tinged melodrama that is at the core here, instead turning it into a stately and stayed piece of work. A far cry from his days as the director of videos like Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” this film screams its way out of the DNA of the director of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video, brooding its way into the hearts and minds of each viewer that lays eyes upon it. Verdant and full of life and vitality, Romanek’s camera is relatively static, proving to be a far cry from his contemporaries like Jonathan Glazer or the aforementioned Gondry, taking more cues from the world of Merchant Ivory productions than anything else.
It also helps when the performances here are uniformly brilliant. Garfield is the biggest take away here, giving what is inarguably his best work to date. It’s a beautiful performance that, inside of this science fiction world, is so real and humane that it helps ground the picture in a world that seems far more plausible than one feels comfortable with. His chemistry with both Knightley and Mulligan is palpable and believable, while each of their respective performances carrie much of the film’s dramatic weight. Mulligan is the film’s brightest star, taking on the lead role and that of the film’s narrator, really allowing her to flex her dramatic muscle in a way we don’t see nearly enough today. Knightley stuns here, proving she’s much more than just a pretty face, making sure even those who doubt her as a thespian (those silly bastards), stand up and take notice, going toe to toe with some of the best actors one could hope to work with including the supporting Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins. A character piece, the film is thankfully driven by these great performances, performances that will have anyone and everyone craving to return to this film time and time again.
Now, here’s the deal. The film does currently have a release on home video, including both a DVD and a Blu-ray. With a handful of features and a serviceable transfer, this 2010 release may seem like an odd choice to request Criterion to hop aboard and bring back to the spotlight. However, this film deserves far more, particularly in the cover art category. With a direct-to-DVD like box art for its home video release, despite having gorgeous poster work and various artists online, even resident Criterion bunk buddy Sam Smyth, making uncommissioned art for the film, this is a crime that needs to be fixed. Also, there are a few features on the current release, but mainly EPK items that don’t really add much to the overall viewing experience. A Romanek commentary would be welcome, as would be a discussion on the original novel. Toss in a retrospective about the making of the film, and possibly even Romanek’s first picture, which is nearly impossible to find, and you’d have one hell of a home video release. Maybe even grab a few music videos, and this could easily be one of the bigger Criterion releases of any given month, or year for that matter.
Overall, Never Let Me Go is an absolute masterpiece. A haunting and unforgettable meditation on what makes a human truly human, and the futility of life, Romanek and writer Garland get at the very core of what makes Ishiguro’s novel one of the best of its generation. Seemingly rarely discussed as the gem that it truly is, this character driven science fiction stunner is one of the best films of this still young decade, and while it will likely be forgotten in an age of big blockbusters and comic book films, when discussing this generation’s great science fiction works, this is without a doubt one of the best. Rivaling Spike Jonze’s latest masterwork Her for great sci-fi romances, this is a film that needs to be re-visited and its critical status re-adjusted. Criterion-worthy, this film most certainly is.