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Why didn't audiences spark to 'Never Let Me Go'?

October 21, 2010 |  2:32 pm

With bankable stars and a bestselling book as its source material, "Never Let Me Go" looked for a long time like it would be this season's art-house breakout. When costar Andrew Garfield was chosen as the new "Spider-Man" this summer, the movie's stock shot up even further.

But five weeks into its release, Mark Romanek's film has been an undeniable disappointment. The Carey Mulligan-Keira Knightley picture -- a science fiction-tinged mood piece about a group of petri-dish babies in a slightly altered universe -- has grossed less than $2 million in domestic release. (By comparison, "Winter's Bone," another movie about young people in a difficult situation that hits the down beats pretty hard, has tallied three times as much.)

And "Never Let Me Go's" run, which distributor Fox Searchlight hoped could continue through the fall, appears to be nearing its end. The movie widened to more than 200 theaters last weekend, but its per-screen average was so low that the movie will start to lose screens in the coming weeks.

The film's performance has disappointed its ardent fans, who have responded enthusiastically to its performances and ideas. We polled a few outside experts and talked to Fox Searchlight executives to discover why it didn't catch on. Five factors emerged.

It's a downer. Adult-oriented movies have been enjoying a good season, with "The Town" and "The Social Network" rolling along. But, true to Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, the book maintains a melancholy tone throughout. Even "Winter's Bone" gives you a bit more of a hug.

Divided critics. Art-house films -- and especially Britain-set dramas -- need all the critical support they can get. But the movie stands at just 65% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, not nearly a large enough number. (By comparison, "Winter's Bone" has elicited a 94% approval rating, as did last year's Mulligan breakout "An Education").

Men don't dig it. Although there's a science-fiction premise, the movie hasn't elicited an especially warm reaction among men, according to Searchlight's informal polling. That cuts out half of the audience -- and makes it even less of an art-house date night film than it otherwise would have been.

The novel problem. The audience for Ishiguro's book gives the movie a marketing head start. But a beloved novel also sets expectations high -- expectations that even the most faithful adaptation sometimes can't reach.

Date issues. With its mid-September release date, Fox Searchlight hoped to beat the rush for serious fall movies. (The company also needed to take advantage of a narrow publicity window for Mulligan.) But it might have gone too early, before filmgoers were ready for the more weighty fare of the fall.

The movie could yet find an audience on DVD, especially as Garfield continues to come into his own. But those who appreciate serious drama made within the Hollywood system -- that is, with stars and a modicum of a budget -- may find the development more depressing than the film. Fox Searchlight wouldn't say that the box-office performance will force it to reevaluate whether to make these kinds of films in the future. But any company with designs on making a prestige-heavy drama will undoubtedly be given pause by "Never Let Me Go."

-- Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: A scene from "Never Let Me Go." Credit: Fox Searchlight


Comments () | Archives (13)

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I'd love to see this movie, but it simply hasn't been released to enough theaters.

Saw the film a few weeks back ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A real snore. A soulless movie that squanders its potential. It's not a shock that audiences are recoiling from it.

I agree, the movie needed better promotion and more screens. I've been waiting for this to come out in theaters and now will have to wait for DVD. This sucks. Fox Searchlight failed this movie big time.

A perennial failing of the author is inaccuracy. These are not "bankable" stars. Keira Knightley has been in the cast of bankable productions, but has not proven herself to be the kind of actress who can open or carry a movie. Carey Mulligan's had a single critically praised role and no demonstrated track record of audience appeal. Despite being selected to be Spider-Man for the Sony reboot, people still have no idea who Andrew Garfield is. So the premise of this article, that this film had "bankable stars" and was based on a bestselling novel, is already half-wrong. Then, when you consider how many films are based on "bestselling novels" that tank at the box office ("Time Traveller's Wife," "Bonfire of the Vanities," etc.), you begin to realize that perhaps this article need not even have been written.

This flick is just a somber, soulful version of that action-filled, soulless film, "The Island" with Ewan MacGregor and that gorgeous girl whose name I can't recall. Fox Searchlight could have done a better marketing campaign that just shots of beautiful, pasty-white English lads and lasses shoe-gazing on a beach. Additionally, these 3 stars are "bankable" to the art-house crowd, no one else. They have yet to become full-fledged stars.

I think that the film was exquisite and for the critics and individuals who find it boring, I think that says something about their capacity to tolerate what the film evokes in them. Both the novel and the film address existential themes. In my view, Ishiguro used the metaphor of clones to convey the idea of finitude: "there are no deferrals... we all complete." The film extended the novel by the incredible visual aesthetic of wabi sabi and mono no aware. If you cannot tolerate this- what Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were facing, then you recoil. Similarly, probably the same people found the movie Synecdoche boring, another powerful film that addressed this theme beautifully.

A quiet masterpiece, but the marketing was as muted as the look of the film. The poster and US trailer didn't quite capture that magic of this film (the UK trailer did a better job selling the aching melancholy that permeates the film - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F03eB4rmrvA). Also, it's VERY British and Japanese in its sensibilities, with Romanek brilliantly directing like a modern day Ozu. Hopefully, this film will have a very long afterlife and maybe even garner another Academy nod for Mulligan.

I'm not going to see the movie because I thought the book was obvious and heavy-handed. Apparently I'm the only person on the planet who thought that.

it is really really boring....Boring lead actress and actor.. Boring predictable story line.. boring acting..

This was a beautiful and moving film. It felt remarkably true to the story line and sensibilities of the book, an achievement that could only have been made possible by an excellent script, superb acting and directing, and stunning cinematography. And what a remarkable music score! This probably the most "literary" film that I have every seen. It is also one of the most emotionally affecting films that I have seen - and, yes, I had read the book several times and knew exactly what was coming.

Why did so many American fail to appreciate what I regard as a very special and brilliant film accomplishment? I very rarely get to see films, so I have minimal exposure to the fast-paced action movies that probably litter the film landscape (at least judging by the stomach-churning film ads that I saw in previews!) Maybe this allowed me to enjoy and appreciate the more low-key style of this film? (OK, a couple of leads die, but there are no car chases or explosions.) Also, I was born and raised in England, so I understand the cultural context of the film.

I encourage anyone who did not get a chance to see the film at the cinema to take to opportunity to see the DVD.

Here is a comment I sent to the NY Times movie blog after seeing this film:

"After glancing at some of the commentaries, I decided not to read Ms. Dargis' review to avoid "spoiling" the experience. Big mistake. This film is dreadful. Bad enough being depressed for 100 minutes watching it; I couldn't stop feeling nauseous long afterwards. It was like watching a polite, refined take on Aushwitz. If that turns you on, by all means, don't hesitate to go to this film. Is the underlying concept to show us how a dehumanized souless society might work? Well, I don't need this piece of crap to get that message. I can't emphasize enough to readers what a god awful film this is. The people giving it glowing five star reviews are out of their mind. Caveat Emptor!"

So there is a simple reason this movie did badly- it is awful. Doesn't take long for word of mouth to get around. I know that as I was leaving the movie, people couldn't wait to get out fast enough.

I saw the film, and found it moving and haunting.
No, it is not a pleasant topic -- but the performances and direction make it watchable and fascinating.
For those who can handle "darker" topics -- without the standard Hollywood ending -- it's worth renting, when it's out on DVD or on demand.

It never occurred to me to see the film because the previews I saw in the theater gave no indication what it was about. I had not read the book and the reviews I read did little to shed any light on it. So, well, I just skipped it. I guess that makes me lazy.


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