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Movies: Never let you go ***

While reviewers will have to pick their way delicately through Never Let Me Go's plot in order to avoid giving the whole game away, I can tell you that it's a dark and dystopian story that might have been dreamt up by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.

Based on an acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Mark Romanek's film stars a trio of young English actors whose beauty only heightens their characters' decidedly bleak prospects. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are orphans who are raised in a prim and proper boarding school where all is not as it seems.

It's the 70s, but a kind of alternative 70s where most things are the same but some crucially and radically different. At Hailsham school, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy experience all the joys and traumas of growing up: the two girls become friends, but are divided by their mutual romantic interest in Tommy, a boy with a big heart and an even bigger temper.

All the while they are given hints that this is a different kind of school: their headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) tells them they are "special", but when strangers come to Hailsham they often shudder and recoil when approached by the pupils.

When one teacher tries to tell them what's really going on, she's instantly dismissed. But it's clear that they're all bound on some prearranged appointment with destiny. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's love triangle will play out over many years in which their friendship will be tested to the bitter limit.

Crisp, brief and scrupulously faithful to the novel, Never Let Me Go is beautifully shot and features two very fine performances. However, there's a curious deadness to the whole thing that wasn't present in the novel, and Romanek's reverence for Ishiguro's text has resulted in a film with serious dramatic shortcomings.

After an excellent prologue using child actors, the film jumps to three future dates in a brusque and unsatisfying fashion, and while it's unusual to complain that a film might have been longer, this could just be a case in point. A heavyhanded score nudges the viewer towards emotions they might have been capable of feeling all on their own if the characters had been more roundly developed, and Ruth in particular is very sketchily drawn.

Whether this is down to Ms Knightley's considerable limitations as an actress or the script I cannot say, but probably it was a combination of both. However, Mulligan and Garfield reach farther than any words they speak in two very nicely judged performances.

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