Never Let Me Go is a powerful piece, with intense performances and subtle, sophisticated direction, which is sadly all in service of an utterly unconvincing premise. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's respected 2005 novel, the film follows the melancholy lives of children raised outside the view of polite society, carefully tended by the state, and prepared from birth for a singularly unpleasant destiny. What they don't know, and we don't find out until the end of the first act (spoiler alert!), is that these beautiful, healthy youths are in fact clones, created to serve as organ donors when they reach early adulthood. This world is disease-free, and the clones are seen as a necessary sacrifice. The premise could be read as an assault on the stem cell debate, a rebuke of socialized medicine or merely as another example of British classism extrapolated to ludicrous extremes.
Like most good science fiction, it works best as a metaphor, though one that requires extraordinary acts of forgiveness to accept as credible. The weakness of the conceit is a shame because occasionally the film achieves moments of heartbreaking emotionally honesty. The story spans 1978 to 1994, and centers on a long-simmering love story between three classmates: clever Kathy, impetuous Ruth and shy, artistic Tommy, played in their adult forms respectively by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. While Kathy and Tommy have had an obvious connection since childhood, Ruth uses her nascent sexual energy to steal him away in their teens. Later, while sequestered in a sort of rural halfway house, the docile teens struggle to understand the outside world they've been shielded from, one which considers them less than human. Example: Jokes in a raunchy sitcom go over their heads, because they've no frame of reference outside their tiny social circle, and even everyday interactions like ordering lunch are a challenge. This isolation only intensifies their relationships, as Kathy and Tommy strive to cling to each other for as long as they can.
Garfield is a naturally sensitive actor, and Mulligan is phenomenal, anchoring the film's ludicrous concept in something true, with her brave resignation and loneliness registering in every glance. Charlotte Rampling is downright chilling as the staid headmistress, and she reflects the uncaring hard-line attitude of this strange other world.
The script gradually doles out tiny spoonfuls of information, which is good, because taken in one gulp the viewer would likely choke on the nonsense. Like the elegantly gloomy apocaplyse of last year's The Road, the specifics of this other earth are left intentionally vague, to escape scrutiny. If science has mastered the art of human cloning, why not simply grow new organs without giving them shoes and eyes and names? How does any of this cure cancer? What's left is an efficient society predicated entirely on cruelty. Never Let Me Go shares its basic premise with the bombastically silly The Island, though by the end of this sedate and frustratingly tasteful dirge you may be clamoring for a little Michael Bay-style mayhem.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].