How did hotly anticipated Oscar contender Never Let Me Go fall out of the race and die a box office death?
This week sees the UK release of the highly accomplished adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, which is about three children who grow up together and slowly realise their lives are not what they expected.
A prestige project financed by Film4, DNA Films and Fox Searchlight, it was only last summer that it seemed like a solid awards season candidate.
But whilst now the Oscar talk is all about The King’s Speech and The Social Network, last summer things were different.
All the right ingredients were there: a talented director in Mark Romanek, a script by Alex Garland and a promising young cast featuring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Sally Hawkins.
When the first one sheet poster and trailer appeared around June, it looked like Fox Searchlight’s formidable marketing machine was clicking into gear.
Films deemed worthy of Oscar are often premiered in late August and early September at festivals in Telluride and Toronto.
The buzz established there can be the fuel that sustains an awards campaign, as was the case in 2008 when Slumdog Millionaire began its all-conquering Oscar run at Telluride.
This year the big audience favourite was The King’s Speech, which got people buzzing and pundits immediately declaring it as an Oscar front runner.
But what about Never Let Me Go?
That too screened at Telluride and Toronto and although some critics admired it, the general reaction was more muted.
There seemed to be an aversion to the actions of the main characters, especially in the final stages of the film, although to say anymore would be venturing into spoiler territory.
In one interview Garland said that some people ‘hated’ the film and Romanek even pointed people (via Twitter) to Ishiguro’s defence of why the characters act the way they do.
This mixed buzz would have been alarming for the team at Fox Searchlight who had hoped this would be one of their major Oscar contenders. But worse was to come.
Most films like Never Let Me Go are given a platform release, which means that they open gradually in major cities, hoping to build on good reviews and positive word of mouth.
On its opening weekend in mid-September, it played at 4 cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, scoring an impressive $120,830, and Sheila DeLoach of Fox Searchlight seemed upbeat, saying to IndieWire:
“It’s one of the top opening per screen averages of a limited film this year, and we feel we’ll have good word of mouth.”
But as the studio expanded the number of screens, audiences stayed away and it gradually died a box office death over the next few weeks, ultimately grossing just $2.4m in the US against a reported production budget of $15m.
In late October the LA Times published a post-mortem piece speculating as to why it didn’t catch fire citing:
- the melancholy tone
- mixed reviews
- lack of appeal to male viewers
- the high expectations set by the novel
- issues with the release date.
It was around this time that I saw the film at the London Film Festival and remember being deeply impressed with the world created by Romanek and the performances (especially Mulligan) whilst also feeling that it was emotionally distant.
But something about it stayed with me and on a recent second viewing in anticipation for the UK release, it struck me that the film might be too effective for its own good.
The powerful, unnerving sadness baked into the story hit a profound chord as deeper themes slowly emerged.
On the surface the it deals with how precious time is, but you could also see it as a story about the way a society rationalises cruelty for the greater good.
The characters in the film could represent anyone in the unfortunate position of being deemed expendable in the eyes of the wider public, be they the homeless, the dispossessed or simple transgressors.
What really hit home on second viewing was a social resonance which Ishiguro probably didn’t intend when he wrote the novel but which the film eerily catches in the current era.
That is how the three central characters, as children and young adults, all seem represent the younger generation of today, one which will potentially pay a heavy price for the prolificacy and greed of the one that spawned them.
Two scenes drive this home: one where a teacher (Sally Hawkins) cryptically explains to her pupils what their life will be and another late on in the film where a key character quietly explains something truly devastating.
In short, you could read Never Let Me Go as a parable of the expendable or how one generation suffers for the sins of its parents.
The focus on the innocence and emotions of the central characters, gently suffocated by wider social forces, is what makes the film really affecting.
But perhaps the sci-fi framework, revealed at the beginning, along with the muted colour palette put some people off from engaging with the film.
It is largely a moot point whether or not the characters ‘accept’ their lives, because the film is – in part- about that very notion of acceptance and how people are conditioned for various reasons to accept their lot.
This is the melancholy truth at the heart of story, which makes it work artistically but not financially in the current era of austerity and gloom when audiences aren’t really up for sadness at the multiplex.
In addition the performances help keep us interested in the strange lives of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth: whilst Knightley and Garfield are good, it is Carey Mulligan’s performance as Kathy which is the emotional lynchpin of the film.
She deserved all the plaudits for her breakout role in An Education, but here she surpasses it with a performance of great emotional range.
Whilst enduring the slow-burning torment of having her one true love stolen by her best friend, she reacts to this (and worse!) by becoming a thoroughly decent and compassionate person.
This is heartbreaking to watch and Mulligan doesn’t hit a false note, especially in the key final act.
Mark Romanek also brings his considerable technical skills to the table and with the help of his DP Adam Kimmell captures the English locations with a piercing eye for detail and the haunting beauty of the landscape.
Although he has only directed two features before this – the little seen Static (1985) and One Hour Photo (2002) – he puts things together with the assurance of an accomplished veteran director.
In the build up to awards like the BAFTAs and Oscars it is easy to forget films that have fallen out of the media spotlight, as but fallen contenders like Never Let Me Go are still worth a look, even if its beautifully designed one-sheet poster has been replaced with a dumbed down UK quad.
It won’t win any major awards and will leave some audiences cold, but I have a feeling that it will find a more appreciative audience over time, as its sad insights are reflected in the wider world.
Never Let Me Go opens in the UK on Friday 11th February
> Official UK site
> Reviews of Never Let Me Go at Metacritic and MUBi
> Find out more about Mark Romanek and Kazuo Ishiguro at Wikipedia
> Mark Romanek on Twitter (He recently admitted the US cover art for the Blu-ray and DVD was lame)