In fact, by the time you read this, you will have probably already heard something about the plot, which, unfortunately, would compromise much of the film’s suspense and impact. It’s a pity. Seen fresh, the experience is quite startling.
So this review, in hopefulness, will concentrate on areas of the film other than the plot. The casting is superb. Keira Knightley as Ruth, Carey Mulligan as Kathy, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy, play three friends who grew up together in a very private English boarding school — so private that the children were frightened into not stepping foot outside the grounds for fear something terrible would surely happen to them. As children, they were extraordinarily sheltered, remarkably isolated, and, in the world of a previous generation without Internet, cell phones, or even television, completely cut off from the rest of the world. Then we begin to realize that this “boarding school” is really an orphanage, because not only do none of the children have any family, they don’t have any visitors, either.
Director Mark Romanek’s style is to emphasize the quiet insularity of the children. He shows a rain shower from outside the building, looking through the dripping leaves of a nearby tree. He focuses on a strand of flapping paper, stuck on a barbed wire fence, while the characters are in dialogue in the meadow. He allows an entire sequence in the dormitory bedroom to consist of whispering between the girls, Kathy and Ruth. He’s not afraid of quiet scenes, or even silences. The backgrounds are often still, and even when the main characters are grown and take an excursion in a car, they wind up on a deserted beach with one abandoned fishing boat, or in a small restaurant by themselves, as if unable to interact with anyone, even strangers.
The casting of Ella Purnell as young Ruth, Izzy Meikle-Small as young Kathy, and Charlie Rowe as young Tommy is also superb, as critical as they are to the development of the story. It’s risky to rely on unknown 12-year-olds to carry the entire first half of a film that eventually centers on the adults, but the transition seems practically seamless.
Carey Mulligan’s Oscar for “An Education” was obviously well-deserved. She’s the real deal as an actress, not so much because of the breadth of her range: shouting, manic, coquette-ish — but because of the depth she can convey by a simple smirk, a silent tear rolling down her cheek, a furtive look of hurt and disappointment in the eyes. Her craft is of such high quality that the others are bound to pale in comparison, but the veteran, celebrated Keira Knightley holds her own in a dark and unglamorous role, and rising star Andrew Garfield (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”) demonstrates a range that indicates we could enjoy seeing him in a variety of other roles.
Yes, it’s a bit of a triangle, similar to the Harry-Ron-Hermione triad of the “Harry Potter” series. But there are decidedly fewer important secondary characters here. Charlotte Rampling shines as the school’s stern headmistress, and even later on gets to discard the caricature for a plot development that portrays her with more vulnerability. But this one is about the three kids, and how they grow up — or don’t.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas