If DreamWorks’ 2005 sci-fi flick The Island had been directed by Friedrich Nietzsche then you’d probably have seen something like Never Let Me Go. Strip the spectacle from that over-the-top actioner and you’re left with some heavy subject matter; a meditation on life and death and an allegory for the pro-life/pro-choice debate or lack thereof when concerning clones. Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later Sunshine) explore the same ethical dilemma as proposed by Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel by creating an alternate reality that isn’t much different from our own considering the often shameful and self-serving nature of homo sapiens.
The film is set in a world where medical advances in the mid-20th Century have allowed humans to live as long as 100 years on average at the expense of “donors” – test-tube babies created from the genes of junkies and hobos. These unfortunate individuals are raised at facilities like the Hailsham House (essentially upper-crust English boarding schools) where they are controlled cut off from society and kept healthy and clean so their organs are in tip-top shape to fuel the failing bodies of the general population. Some donors qualify to become “Carers” who tend to the others when the surgeries begin. Upon “completion” the Carer moves on to the next subject until they receive their notice and become a donor themselves.
Though the children learn about their morbid fate at a young age thanks to their guilt-ridden school teacher Miss Lucy (played with fragile insecurity by Sally Hawkins) the psychological and emotional strain of their existence becomes painfully clear during the second act where main characters Kathy Ruth and Tommy travel to and reside in Cottages in the English countryside. There they mature in different ways: by connecting with the outside world via day trips to a nearby town by being exposed to television and pop-culture and perhaps most significantly by connecting with each other through sexual exploration. But like all humans – and make no mistake donors are characteristically human – they each lose their innocence in some form as they grow. They end up scattered throughout the country reuniting years later to right the wrongs in their lives with the little time that they have left.
The circle of life in Never Let Me Go is painful and bleak but the creative team captures the environment with an eerie beauty and calmness that is as deceiving as Hailsham’s headmistress Emily played with aristocratic authority by Charlotte Rampling. The heightened atmosphere is amplified by Rachel Portman’s peculiar musical arrangements that slyly accentuate the mystery. Quite often cinematography is wrongly mistaken for photography in decently shot movies but at any moment in this film a single frame is literally worth a thousand words. Much praise must go to director of photography Adam Kimmel but you mustn’t overlook the uncanny abilities of Carey Mulligan Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield who respectively play Kathy Ruth and Tommy with such intimate delicacy that their tears will likely bring on some of your own.
A wrenching drama with a subtle backbone in science fiction you’d never know that you’re looking at a dystopian past because of the reserved production design and humble costumes. There aren’t any fantastic visions of a technologically superior society because there’s nothing superior about it. The unseen citizens of Romanek’s England proper though far from tabloid superstars are as aesthetically obsessed and superficial as the Paris Hilton's of 2010 America. Why else would they inflict pain and death on innocent lives? In the answer to that question lies one of the core themes of Never Let Me Go; the devaluation of life and further a lack of understanding of what makes us human.
If I’ve got any complaint with Never Let Me Go it has to do with the unavoidably frustrating inaction of the protagonists. Even after a devastating and climactic revelation where Kathy and Tommy’s hopes for prolonged life are crushed once and for all the thought of a Logan’s Run-style rebellion is never a consideration. They weren’t complacent but were perhaps fully aware of the futility of revolution. Rather than run from their destiny they opted to embrace it by cherishing every last moment they had together and that of course is the moral of this heartbreaking tale. It doesn’t make for a very exciting plot but it is an exemplary case of exceptional storytelling.