Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s second feature after the chilling One Hour Photo, is bleak, beautiful, and devastating, three dissonant descriptions living in harmony with the film’s mood and powerful message.
A title card establishes a parallel reality where, in 1967, advancements in science have made it possible for humans to live well past a century. But the science fiction angle takes a backseat to the human condition, merely setting the stage for an intriguing discussion on identity and personal purpose.
The first act centers on three children of Hailsham, a strictly-structured boarding institution for “special” students who are scrutinized regularly by doctors and monitored electronically like cattle. A staff of stern-faced “guardians” presides over the children, not educating them so much as conditioning them mentally and physically for an unknown task. Their playtime is enclosed and isolated from the outside world by low walls reinforced by more lies.
Juvenile dopplegangers interact within their pre-approved boundaries and stand in for the film’s ensemble, at first, as Tommy (Andrew Garfield), a hot-tempered adolescent with an artful gift; Ruth (Keira Knightley), a precocious, manipulative child; and Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), their consistently resilient companion and the nostalgic, soft-spoken narrator.
Before she’s promptly fired for over-sharing, as I’m about to, a sympathetic guardian (Sally Hawkins), with sadness in her eyes, breaks the news of their destiny. They are clones, or human carbon copies, meant as organ factories to cure the ailments of ordinary humans. Hailsham is simply an experiment to determine their humanity and the ethics of society’s “advancements,” and one that was abandoned in lieu of “battery farms.”
Without parents or family, in the traditional sense, the trio clings together for affection, eventually forming a more conventional love triangle. Docile, thoroughly conditioned, and with pride in their purpose, fleeing the callous system never occurs to them, even when they find themselves peering in on the outside world at a nearby travel agency. They wander sun-drenched landscapes and lush, picturesque environments teeming with life, a cruel reminder that existence grows on, before they “complete” in lonely operating rooms.
Carey Mulligan is inspired casting, matching her breakthrough performance in An Education with a similar graceful poise and careful delicacy, and Garfield is spectacular, a lanky bundle of sensitivity, meekness, and futile frustration.
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Alex Garland’s script and Romanek’s fantastic film capture the Japanese sense of duty and infuse British sensibilities in crafting a muted, sustainable mood. Romanek retains the book’s three part structure, but the film begins near the end, picking up the rest through flashbacks, as Tommy is wheeled in for his final donation, a heart-wrenching message of inevitability that carries more emotional weight on its second offering. Its subtle parallels to broken health, class and education systems, and its ruminating, deliberate pace may not be accessible to some, but the thoughtful, restrained Never Let Me Go is capable of connecting on a deeper level than most by holding up a mirror to the human condition and one’s personal sense of meaning.
4.5 out of 5.