Never Let Me Go

Movie Information

The Story: A dystopian sci-fi that takes place in alternate history. The film follows the lives of three children at a sheltering private school -- and the purpose behind that school. The Lowdown: Intense and methodical, Never Let Me Go is a film of considerable power, but it's also such a downer that its appeal may be limited.
Score:

Genre: Allegorical Science Fiction/Romance
Director: Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Rated: R

Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go—from a screenplay by Alex Garland and based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro—is hands-down the best film I saw this week. It’s also one of the most depressing, and that, I fear, is going to keep it from being the success it ought to be. I saw the film Friday morning with two friends. When it ended, no one spoke and no one moved for the greater part of the credits. It’s that kind of movie. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly shattering, but it leaves you feeling shaken in that “all is most certainly not right with the world” fashion. Let’s face it, not everyone wants to go to the cinema to feel that way, and I certainly wouldn’t want a steady diet of it. But I can’t say the film isn’t haunting me a few days later.

Although I was—and to some degree still am—of the opinion that Never Let Me Go is a story best approached by knowing as little as possible, it’s a film that is impossible to actually discuss without referencing the major “secret” of the plot. Bear that in mind before reading further. Of course, if you’ve read the novel (I haven’t), you already know the essence of the plot. And, for that matter, the film’s trailer drops enough hints that it’s hard not to guess that the film focuses on cloned children who are raised for the specific purpose of having their organs harvested as replacement parts for what are viewed as real people. The question that the film raises is what constitutes real people.

The story is set in a kind of parallel (or allegorical) universe past—told mostly in flashback by Kathy (Carey Mulligan)—and specifically concerns three cloned children who live at what appears to be an idyllic and very select English boarding school called Hailsham. The children are Kathy (played as a child by Isobel Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe, Pirate Radio) and Ruth (newcomer Ella Purnell). (The roles of Tommy and Ruth are taken over by Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley as young adults.) In some ways, the school is what it appears, but its deeper purpose is merely suggested—both to the viewer and to the children, who are kept ignorant of their already determined fate. The students are told horror stories of what happens to children who dare to step outside the school grounds.

The film wisely makes us care about Kathy, Tommy and Ruth—and, by extension, the other children—before the issue of their humanity is actually raised. We get to know them, to feel for them, to understand to some degree their hopes and fears—and to know that they are capable of loving, being loved and longing for love. It’s only when one of their teachers—Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins)—finds herself unable to peddle the party line about the future and flat-out tells them that they have no choice and no future that the enormity of what’s going on is revealed.

This whould, you might think, kill the film’s dramatic tension, but it doesn’t. This is because the film is ultimately dealing in the universal revelation that the world that’s painted for you by adults when you’re a child has very little relation to the reality you increasingly face. And more, it deals in our own tendency to cling to those early myths or invent new ones to take their place, grasping at anything that might help get us through life. And this is what informs the adult part of the story.

Early in the film one character tells Miss Lucy some of the stories that keep the children inside the bounds of Hailsham and asserts that these stories—rumors really—must be true because no one would make up such horrible things. Of course, we know that’s not the case, but the film wants us to confront whether the stories meant to comfort us are any less cruel when they offer hope that doesn’t exist. As mentioned, this isn’t the sort of material to brighten your day, and it becomes less so the more we come to be involved with the aspirations that keep slipping through the cracks as the main characters become increasingly resigned to their predestined ends.

There’s scarcely a false note in any aspect of Never Let Me Go, starting with the casting. It’s impossible to imagine actors who could have been better—and I don’t just mean the leads. The actors playing their younger counterparts are compelling in their own right, and it’s easy to believe they’d grow up to be Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley. The screenplay and direction are equally fine. However, it all comes back to the fact that the film is ultimately a depressing experience. Do I recommend it? Oh, most certainly. But know what you’re getting into. Rated R for some sexuality and nudity.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

10 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go

  1. Steven Adam Renkovish

    I saw this film earlier today. It was so powerful, and everything about the film was amazing…but I don’t believe that I want to see it again any time soon. My friend and I really didn’t say much to each other on the ride home from the theatre. That never happens. It took us a while to gather ourselves before we discussed the film. I’ve seen many “heavy” films in my life, but good Lord almighty…

    Excellent film, but all who intend to see it need to prepare ahead of time.

  2. Steven

    [b]My friend and I really didn’t say much to each other on the ride home from the theatre.[/b]

    That happened to me as well. My girlfriend and I didn’t say a word to each other regarding the film for the rest of the night, which never happens.

    I, however, do have the intention on viewing again. Partly because the audio cut out (I was out of town) in the theater during a pretty important scene. I feel as if I missed on a few subtleties as well.

    I can’t think of a weak performance in the entire film. I felt that Carey Mulligan was the standout performance.

  3. Steven Adam Renkovish

    I’ll probably buy the DVD, if only because it affected me so deeply, and it’s not every day that a film can do that to you. Sometimes, that can make all the difference — to actually go to a film that takes you through an emotional experience, the way that this one does.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I have to admit I’m in no big hurry to see it again, but that in no way reflects my feeling about its quality.

  5. john r

    I just got back from seeing this in Wichita (yes, I am still here), and it was as wrenching as noted above. I think the point that struck me the hardest, is that of all the cruelty inferred in this movie, none is more destructive than the act of removing all hope.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I just got back from seeing this in Wichita

    Well, at least you’re still going to the movies out there. Do you miss us?

  7. john r

    Tuesday and Thursday nights are not the same here. This weekend is “The Long Grass Film Festival” here, so maybe I can find some converts to the “Hanke” method of keeping lost souls off the streets 2 nights a week. Please send my greetings to everybody, and throw an unexpected heckle at the next movie shown in honor of my absence.

  8. Ken Hanke

    the “Hanke” method of keeping lost souls off the streets 2 nights a week.

    Not to mention keeping the folks that watch them off the streets.

    Please send my greetings to everybody, and throw an unexpected heckle at the next movie shown in honor of my absence.

    I’ll do that. Any particular film you’d like heckled?

  9. KB

    Regarding this well-acted movie, (which could easily have been made and readily appreciated in today’s China,) all I could say as I was leaving was, “That was sweet.” But what I really wanted to scream out at the audience, (which sat through the film as docilely as the doomed characters accepted their fate,) was “If you liked that, you’re gonna love Obamacare!” Wake up greenies! It’s not as far-fetched as you think.

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