Never Let Me Go is many things. It’s a tale of young love; it’s a Dystopian sci-fi nightmare; it’s an existentialist drama, and it’s a disturbing social commentary that looks deeply into the notion of what it means to be human.
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are friends who attend Hailsham, an exclusive English boarding school where all the students are very special. To all intents and purposes their world looks much like ours, yet something is eerily different. What we do know is that although the film takes place in the not-too-distant past, the characters live in an alternate reality thanks to certain medical breakthroughs that have happened in the previous decades. How exactly it’s different we don’t yet know. All we know is that the average human life expectancy is now 100 years.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan, whose captivating performance proves that her breakthrough turn in An Education was no accident) is the film’s narrator and central character. She’s in love with Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and although he appears to have feelings for her as well, he somehow ends up with Ruth (Keira Knightley) who is cruelly aware of Kathy’s jealousy. Despite the obvious hurt and tension the three remain close as they grow up and enter adulthood. It’s no wonder – with the bizarre circumstances of their upbringing and the devastating horror they know is to come in their futures, they have precious few they can turn to.
The story is divided into three parts representing the three phases of their lives. After leaving Hailsham the friends are moved to a rural area and live in a smattering of buildings known as “the cottages”. At the cottages they remain relatively isolated but get the chance to wander into the outside world on occasion – a privilege they had never been granted at Hailsham. In the third phase they move on from the cottages and each other to take on the work they were destined to do since inception.
It’s tough to talk about Never Let Me Go without revealing the central theme, or “twist” if you will (readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s piercing novel will be interested to know that he kept it from his audience far longer than the movie does), but suffice it to say that it’s quietly horrific yet not so far from our own reality that it’s incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s what’s most disturbing about it.
If you’ve read the book you know that it’s a particularly tough one to adapt for the screen. The ethereal tone that is so fundamental to the story is incredibly hard to translate to film, but screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) actually managed to do it – almost too well. By that I mean that it’s so deliberately slow and delicate that something seems to be missing. That je ne sais quoi that kept readers turning page after page is gone. There’s no impact, now ‘wow’ factor, no gripping pain that makes you truly feel for the characters and wonder what will happen next. That said, the bleakly Dystopian atmosphere is appropriately chilling and haunting. There’s a gloomy romanticism to their world that’s mournful and oppressive, but also somehow beautiful.
It also needs to be said that the performances in this film are nothing short of excellent. As a narrator Kathy is matter-of-fact and unsentimental. She’s very accepting of her fate, as they all are, and describes the circumstances of their lives in plain terms and with little emotion. Yet Carey Mulligan’s beautifully expressive face betrays all the emotion she, and the others like her, have been trained not to allow themselves to feel. Her performance is exquisite. Garfield plays Tommy as a sweet and sensitive yet totally unaware and immature boy who doesn’t know what to do with his own feelings. It’s hard not to feel for him, despite the havoc he’s unknowingly wreaked on the two girls. Knightley, who I’ve never been a huge fan of in the past is manipulatively chilling as Ruth.
At the end of the day this movie is really about these friends, born into a life of service and alienated from society, who are so fearful of the future that they cling to the past. Yet despite their unusual and devastating circumstances the overall theme is one that everyone watching can relate to: no matter what any of our futures may hold, and no matter how hard we try to fight it, the same fate ultimately awaits us all. Be prepared, this is not the feel good movie of the year.
The Upside: Outstanding performances from one of the best casts we’ve seen this year.
The Downside: The deliberately slow pace drags a little, particularly in the second act, and lessens some of the intended impact.
On the Side: The woman sitting next to me kept muttering that it must be a pretty sick mind that came up with this story and that the very idea was not scientifically possible. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.