By Don Simpson | October 8, 2010
Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro
Starring: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield
We are informed during the opening title sequence that a significant medical breakthrough occurred in 1952, and by the year 1967 human life expectancy exceeded 100 years. This is as good of a clue as any that this film does not take place during our history, it takes in the past of a fictional reality.
The first third of the film takes place in the 1970s as the prepubescent Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Ruth (Ella Purnell) and Tommy (Charlie Rowe) attend a British boarding school called Hailsham. Here the “guardians” (read: teachers) encourage the students to produce various forms of art, the best of which are chosen to be collected in a gallery. There is an eerie emphasis on staying healthy as well as remaining within the fenced off boundaries of the school.
Once matured, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are relocated to the “Cottages,” a rural farming community where they are exposed to the outside world and essentially free to do what they want. By now, we know exactly what Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are and what their destined roles are in this world. (I admittedly have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s source novel, but I have heard that Ishiguro quite effectively keeps this secret close to his chest for a majority of the book.) If you do not want to know the secret — which, in my opinion, is quite obviously revealed at the outset of the film — then please stop reading now.
They might live in a world and a time that feel familiar to us; but in this eerie dystopian world, human beings are cloned for the sole purpose of providing organs for transplants. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are clones; and the purpose of Hailsham is to prove to society that clones have souls — which is part of Hailsham’s feeble effort to improve the living conditions for clones and alter the attitudes of society (which view the clones as non-human sources of organs).
Some clones — such as the adult Kathy — work temporarily as “carers,” supporting and comforting the clones as their organs are harvested time and time again until they eventually “complete” (read: die). Carers are typically able to postpone their first donation, so Kathy has the opportunity to care for (and outlive) Ruth and Tommy.
Human cloning will more than likely never happen in our lifetime — especially if the religious right has any say in the matter (which, in the U.S. at least, they typically do) — but nonetheless Never Let Me Go is a very intriguing moral exercise. The moral, ethical, theological and philosophical conversations spawned from Never Let Me Go promise to be indefinitely perplexing — just as hot potato political topics such as abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, death penalty, immigration, affordable health care and LGBT rights continuously flummox our society in reality.
Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (Sunshine), Never Let Me Go seems to be garnering most of its criticisms for revealing the fact that Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are clones way too early in the narrative. Admittedly, I agree that this could have been kept secret (from the audience and the characters) for much longer and the “twist” would have had a significantly stronger effect.
But the premature reveal did not spoil the film for me at all. I thought the tone — from the performances to the cinematography and score — was perfectly delicate, tranquil and thoughtful; the love triangle of the main characters was very nicely downplayed; and the social commentary was in no way overt (most of it was handled via subtext), yet the message rang loud and clear.
I probably should not admit this — as a straight male and as a film critic — but what the heck? Never Let Me Go marks the first time I cried in a movie theater in a very long time. (I did my best to hold the tears until I hit the parking lot.) I can probably chalk the waterworks up to my fragile emotional state of late, but I think it also reflects Romanek’s keen ability to jerk (or shall I say harvest?) tears from our eye sockets. Let’s just say that Never Let Me Go is an incredibly grey and dismal film…and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.