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 would, 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.