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Clone-like stars keep hold of own identities

THE actress Carey Mulligan has most often been compared to is sitting just a couple of seats to her right. In the flesh, however, there is little real resemblance between the 25-year-old Mulligan and Keira Knightley, two months her senior, save for similar-length hair and a shared striking and classic beauty.

In manner and style Mulligan, dressed today in a yellow dress which accentuates her blonde bob, seems a more down-to-earth and self- deprecating figure. Knightley, wearing cappuccino-coloured blouse and a blue silk skirt is more aristocratic, more aloof. Or perhaps that's just the image they want to portray.

Ever since Mulligan burst her way into the public consciousness with a magnificent performance in An Education, Lone Scherfig's adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoirs, she has been branded as "the new Keira Knightley".

It's the sort of labelling which allows an audience to digest and process exactly who she is, while expending as little energy as possible. The reality is that they are far from the clones of each other that they are often made out to be.

At least, not in real life.

In their latest film, Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the best-selling Kazuo Ishiguro novel, things are slightly different. In the film, part sci-fi, part English period drama, Mulligan plays Kathy, a student at an upmarket boarding school that, it emerges, is more like a free-range organic farm for human organs. As she and her friends Ruth (Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) move from childhood to young adulthood, they realise their only hope for salvation is to be granted a mysterious deferral, which would allow them to avoid their fate, temporarily at least.

Mulligan, as the stoic matriarch figure, is the film's driving force and narrator, ably supported by her friend Knightley. It's a friendship which began when Mulligan made her film debut playing Kitty Bennet in 2005's Pride and Prejudice. It was a movie that earned Knightley an Oscar nomination for her role as Elizabeth Bennet, and confirmed that she possessed real acting ability to back up the celebrity which came her way immediately after her breakthrough performances in Bend it Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mulligan has embarked on a similar journey over the past two years, cementing her reputation as an actress of note for the next decade and beyond. Variety has described her as the "new Audrey Hepburn", and there certainly is a doe-eyed similarity between the two, although Never Let Me Go is severely devoid of any Hepburn-esque glamour.

"I read the book when it came out and I loved it," Mulligan explains of her involvement in the film which is directed by Mark Romanek. "I loved it as a love story and a story about people that want very simple things from life and can't get them. Keira and I did Pride and Prejudice together and other adaptations where the author's not around to tell you off [that] it's rubbish, and so this was doubly intimidating because we had Ish [Ishiguro] with us and you want it to be everything he imagined when he wrote it, and there are people around who have read the book recently and are in love with the book so there's more pressure."

Knightley, however, was in a different position to her co-star. "I hadn't read the book," she says with slight embarrassment. "The first thing I knew about it was the script that came through my door and I thought it was a unique piece. I started to talking to friends, saying 'I'm thinking about doing this film' and tons of them said, it's one of our favourite books. One said a terrifying thing which was for them 'it sums up our generation', which now, having read the book, I find a bleak prospect."

It's rare that a movie production, from director to actor, is so willing to acknowledge that they found the original source material was so influential as they went about their jobs. Normally, whether it's true or not, the influential figures will talk about what they brought to the characters and how it was important they gave their own interpretation. Mulligan sees it slightly differently.

"The script [written by The Beach writer Alex Garland] was perfect and we didn't change a line from the first draft. We had a great environment to work in. Mark had a copy of the book with him all the time and I had a copy of the book with me -- we all had the book and would refer to it. Especially for me, the whole book is narrated by my character. It would be remiss of me not to refer to it. We could do three takes and act badly or get bored then find one line in the book and it would inspire you, so I was looking at the book a lot of the time."

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The performances of the actors, including a backing cast featuring Domhnall Gleeson, are such that even the author of the novel found watching the finished film revelatory. "I felt I learned a lot from watching the film, in particular the performances of the actors," he says.

"There's only one of me when I'm writing a book and I can't pay attention to all the characters and what they might be thinking, so here's a situation where you have highly intelligent actors pondering endlessly for days about their particular characters. They're bound to find new things and interesting discoveries, so for me, it was a wonderful revelation. I think I've learned a hell of a lot about this story and I think that's how it should be. I don't think this story should be a fixed thing or fixed at the point of a book. I feel more like a songwriter [who wants them to take it into] new areas and do their new versions."

While Mulligan may be the film's star, Knightley is more than happy to contribute in a supporting role. "I worked solidly from the age of 16 to 22 without a holiday," she said in a recent interview. "And then at 22 I took a year off -- which was needed. And since then it's been supporting roles. I mean, time off in between is important; it was quite mental at one point."

Off-screen Mulligan has quickly learned what came to Knightley years ago -- that with success on success comes prying eyes. There was a relationship -- now ended -- with Wall Street 2 co-star Shia LeBeouf. Since then she's been said to be seeing actor Eddie Redmayne, and there are even suggestions of a blossoming romance with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Knightley has been down these paths of newspaper and internet speculation, and the relentless paparazzi pursuit which comes with it. In fact, she is back living in that world again -- if she ever left it -- after it was announced last month that she and her partner of five years, the actor Rupert Friend, had split.

On and off screen Mulligan and Knightley seem to be following matching paths. They may not be clones of one another, but nobody said there aren't striking similarities.

Never Let Me Go is now showing

Film reviews, page 6

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