LONDON – The London Film Festival opened Wednesday with the European premiere of "Never Let Me Go," a movie with a hauntingly off-kilter setting and a universal emotional punch.
Stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield walked the red carpet in Leicester Square before the gala evening screening that kicks off the two-week extravaganza of 300 movies from 67 countries.
Several of the big titles have already made a splash at other festivals. They include Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller "Black Swan," starring Natalie Portman, and "The King's Speech," with Colin Firth playing Britain's King George VI as he struggles to overcome a severe stutter. Naomie Harris, Helena Bonham Carter and Julianne Moore were among the stars expected to make appearances at the festival.
"Never Let Me Go" is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-nominated novel about three boarding school friends who discover complicated feelings for one another — and the dark fate that awaits them beyond the school grounds.
It's set in a gentle English dystopia, beautifully rendered by director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo"). The actors said they were struck by the emotional force of the tale. Mulligan called it "a love story about people who want very simple things from life and can't get them."
"It's very rare that you find a script that is so full of what it is to be alive — to be human and the struggles that we collectively go through," Garfield told reporters before the premiere. "There are terrible scripts, there are good scripts, and then there are scripts and stories like this one."
Ishiguro said the story is about mortality and "how people cope with their fate," but isn't meant to be bleak.
"I think this story was trying to put a positive light on human nature," he said. "To try and say as convincingly as possible that when people feel they are trapped and their time is running out, the things that become important are things like friendship and love."
Literary adaptations can be fraught, but this one — scripted by "The Beach" author Alex Garland — seems to have gone remarkably smoothly.
Ishiguro said watching the movie was "a wonderful revelation." The cast said they were in awe of the novel and its author.
"Keira and I did 'Pride and Prejudice' together," Mulligan said. "We've done lots of adaptations of Dickens and Austen and things where the author's not around to tell you off if it's rubbish. So this was sort of doubly intimidating."
The film is an apt opener for a festival that sets out to showcase the best of British cinema, including new films from Mike Leigh ("Another Year"), Ken Loach ("Route Irish") and Peter Mullan ("Neds"). Its leads are three of Britain's hottest young actors and rising international stars.
Knightley is an established celebrity thanks to the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and her two co-stars are getting used to the Hollywood spotlight. Mulligan was Academy Award nominated for "An Education" and appears in the "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Garfield is in hit Facebook saga "The Social Network" and will soon spin a web as star of the next "Spider-Man" movie.
Garfield said he and his co-stars made no distinction between Hollywood blockbusters and smaller films.
"We all approach every job as if it was our last, and our first," he said.
The 54th London film festival closes Oct. 28 with Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston, who amputated his own arm after it was trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon.