reviewed by Mark Pezzula
Directed by Mark Romanek
Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley
Never Let Me Go, based on the book of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a subtle and graceful science fiction film unlike any produced in recent memory. Genteel in its portrayal of a fictional dystopia, the film is a noble attempt at using the sci-fi genre as merely a backdrop for what is mainly a love story. While director Mark Romanek succeeds in creating an alternate reality so familiar to our own yet with a Philip K. Dick-ian sense of a repressive, authoritarian state lurking ever so watchful in the background, the love story is more difficult to accept, and therefore the film left me impressed by the audacity of its simplicity, but (despite its consistently sad tone) emotionally unsatisfied.
The film begins as title cards tell us that in the 1950's, a cure was found for any and all human ailments. The average life expectancy rate skyrockets into the 100's by the 1960's. We are then introduced to Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), who, in the 1990's, tells us through narration that she is a "carer" - a person who helps a "donor" through their donation period. As Kathy reminisces about becoming a carer, we are transported back to the 1970's, where Kathy attends what seems to be an exclusive boarding school called Hailsham, where she falls in young love with class outcast Tommy. Tommy and Kathy court each other as only children can, until one day Ruth, Kathy's cold and sexually aggressive friend, steals Tommy away from Kathy. On top of having her young heart broken, Kathy (and the rest of the children at Hailsham) learn, from a renegade teacher who tires of hiding the truth from her students, that they will eventually become "donors" - people who are raised and bred so that their organs may be harvested for sick or dying people.
Advancing almost a decade, the film then follows Kathy, Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) to a place called The Cottages, where other future donors and prospective carers are held until its time for them to be released out into the "real" world, where they will fulfill their donation duties until they "complete" (die). Kathy and Tommy are still in love, and although they never speak of it Ruth has her suspicions that she is not Tommy's true amor. Throughout their stay at The Cottages, Ruth constantly makes it known to Kathy, verbally and through physical cues, that Kathy and Tommy will never be a couple.
The problems with Never Let Me Go begin with the transition from Hailsham to The Cottages. While Romanek shoots ever scene brilliantly and the film is very well crafted, the movie always seems in a hurry to advance from one scene to the next. Kathy and Tommy barely spend any time together as children, and as soon as Tommy becomes the object of Ruth's affection the film leaps ahead to the second phase of the donor/carer program. During this period of the film Kathy and Tommy again spend no real time together. Romanek strives to convey a loving relationship between the two with glances and short conversations, and the actors do a commendable job with their characters, but at no point did I become emotionally invested in what was happening between them.
What's more interesting about the film is the way Romanek hides the outside alternate reality from not only the characters but from the audience as well. The full nature of the donor/carer program is never explained, but it doesn't need to be. Although details are sketchy (the donors are understood to be clones, but clones of who, really? Who gets the harvested organs - the wealthy? All British citizens?), it's implicitly understood that the donors have nowhere to run (escape is never talked about by any of the characters in the film) and that the whole program is morally contemptible and run by an evil system of government. That Romanek succeeds in making this system feel ever present and oppressive without showing any aspect normally associated with the science fiction film is impressive.
The third act of the film again jumps ahead a decade to where we first meet Kathy at the beginning of the film. A successful and well liked carer, she deals with the daily completion of the donors she is assigned to not with stoicism, but with the passive condolence of a funeral director. Having been estranged from her two friends for ten years, she serendipitously meets up with Ruth, who has survived two "donations", but is frail and moving rapidly towards completion. Attempting to atone for keeping Tommy and Kathy apart for so many years, Ruth tells Kathy that her and Tommy can receive a deferral, by which they would receive a few extra years of "normal" life before having to donate. Ruth tells the two of them that a deferral can only be received by two people who are truly in love. To tell any more of the plot would be to give too much of the film away, which I feel I've done already.
The performances in Never Let Me Go are all great, with Mulligan and Garfield again showing that they are two of the best young actors working today. Knightley turns in a fine performance as well, although Ruth never really gets a chance to do anything other than manipulate and then express regret.
As good as the actors are, as interesting as the film is, and as beautiful as it looks, Never Let Me Go is incredibly somber, almost to the point of being laughably s0. I could count the number of smiles the actors give on one hand, and there are no memorable moments of levity in the film. While the subject matter doesn't lend itself heavily to moments of lightness, some injected humor would have done the film a world of good.
Never Let Me Go is an expertly crafted film, but one that doesn't connect emotionally. It tries very hard, and everyone involved has put a tremendous amount of effort into making the film devastatingly memorable (Garfield comes the closest with a truly heartbreaking moment towards the end of the film. By sheer will of his amazing performance, I came close to breaking down myself), but it ultimately fails to engage as a story about love and mortality.