A Proviso: The last thing I would want to do is give away the meat of this film, as it’s a wonderfully off center world that is quite satisfying to discover as it develops. It is, however, basically impossible to keep the crux of the book and film secret when talking about its artistic merit with any depth, and as such it will be discussed in detail in the below article. I would recommend that anyone who has not read the book or seen the film and wants to keep things fresh should probably skip reading this for now and either run to a book store RIGHT NOW and read it, or pick up the DVD/Blu-Ray/Format of your choice on its (US) release date February 1. We’ll be waiting here for you. The internet is funny that way. Now, let’s get to business.
Imagine knowing without doubt that you were not going to live long enough to see age thirty-five, and that you’ve known this for most of your life. Imagine further that the last few years of your exceedingly short life would be spent infirm in hospital beds in constant pain and general misery, knowing at all times that death is just around the corner. It’s for a worthy cause; your preordained sacrifice will save and elongate the life of another. Imagine, however, knowing all of this, and being in love. This is the central conceit of Never Let Me Go, the devastatingly poignant and almost unconscionably sad film adaptation of the book of same name.
Mark Romanek has directed quite a few famous (and infamous) music videos in his life. His first major job at long form film was 2002’s creepy genre picture One Hour Photo, wherein he squeeze one of the best performances out of Robin Williams’ long and illustrious career. He basically disappeared after that, trying to develop a few projects and failing, and doing some more short form music video and television commercial work. In 2010 he returned with a vengeance, bringing along favored Danny Boyle scribe Alex Garland (he of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the original source material for The Beach) in order to adapt Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian tale. What results is one of the best films of 2010, a singularly romanticized and beautiful viewing experience that wrenches at the heart every step of the way.
The film centers around a trio of characters who attend the same boarding school as children. Kathy (played in her adult incarnation by Carey Mulligan) is shy, and clings to her more outgoing friend Ruth (Keira Knightly) while admiring emotional loner Tommy (Andre Garfield, 2010’s rising comet) from a distance. We watch these three as they go through a most bizarre school indeed, where nothing matters except creating art and poetry, and little regard is given to the idea of preparing these children adequately for the future. It becomes clear in short order that there is a reason for this (which isn’t fully revealed until the finale), as one of the guardians (née teacher) lets slip in a moment of frustration that they are destined to die young. These children are clones, you see, genetically engineered to act as walking, breathing organ farms to help their original selves prolong their life spans. Polite society doesn’t view them as people, only tools for perseverance, a spare liver, a backup heart.
To call these students second class citizens would be a crass understatement, as it’s pretty clear that they cannot even be considered citizens in the first place. They have to go through role playing and training exercises to prepare them for interacting with an outside world they’ve never seen. Rumors of grisly repercussions heavily incentivize them to stay put on school grounds. Once they graduate, they move on to drab barracks-like subsistence housing to live out five to ten years of controlled ‘freedom’ until the donations begin. It’s basically the equivalent of being put in a retirement home directly after graduating from high school, and transitioning to hospice care by your early to mid twenties. Not exactly a fantasy life, to be sure.
What makes Never Let Me Go so heartbreaking is the cavalier nature our intrepid clones approach their fate. This isn’t a situation where the students are brainwashed from birth to fulfill a role. Their lives at boarding school are insulated, certainly, but not to the point that it is beaten into their heads from an early age that they’re doomed. Indeed, the guardian who lets slip their lot in life is chastised (deleted, even, as she just disappears) for even bringing it up to the fourth years. Of course, rumors travel swiftly at this school like any other, so even the young ones are at least generally aware of their fate. But this isn’t Logan’s Run or 1984. There aren’t any grand conspiracies, governmental censorships, or planned revolts. As children, we don’t really get a sense of their reactions on the matter positively or negatively, but this changes as they get older. For now, and for the course of the first act of the film that takes place at the school, they’re just normal kids.
This film would not have worked at all without strong performances from the main cast, particularly the three principals. We see them at two different periods of their lives ten years apart, and it’s necessary for them to be in completely different emotional and physical states. Keira Knightly’s character has the easiest road, as she is physically destroyed by her first two donations and confined to a walker in order to move around at age twenty-nine. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield are in much different positions, as she has taken on the role of carer, and he is still in good shape after his second donation. The necessary sort of detached compassion of a caregiver permeates the whole of Kathy’s personality; she knows she is in a privileged position having not even had her first donation, but can’t flaunt her good fortune. Tommy is in relatively good spirits, but knows (especially after seeing Ruth’s deteriorated state) that the end can’t be too far off. It’s clear when you see him fully throw himself into the possibility of deferral (the rumor that two donors can delay their fate by proving that they are truly in love) that while his love for Kathy is true, absolute, and total, his concern just might lie more with survival than anything else, while Kathy remains quietly dubious of the whole process. When the rug is pulled away and Tommy, knowing that there’s officially no way out now, loses it, screaming into the night sky of an indifferent world, we feel his pain instinctively. It’s the pain of loss and frustration. The pain of the ignored.
Indeed, that’s what makes the film work so devastatingly well. Most of this review is centered on the final act of the film, as the charming naïveté undercut with vague dread of the first two acts is stripped away leaving simple, naked dread by itself, permeating, suffocating the landscape to frame the race against time that is already predestined to fail. The donors are people, act as such and think and feel as such, but are treated by the rest of society as livestock. And for the most part, they go along with it willingly, knowing that while their sacrifice might seem to be in vain, their lives unimportant, they’re doing something that matters, goddamnit, and will not shirk their duties one iota. It’s the few outbursts of emotion that give you a deeper look into the true tragedy of their plight. Tommy’s two bookended primal screams, one as child, one as dead man walking, that frame the film. Ruth’s response to finding her ‘possible,’ the person she might have been cloned from to keep alive. Kathy’s own attempts to find her original self, if only to give some reference to her sacrifice. Romanek’s work is masterful, abjectly refusing to simplify matters or give into the easy and obvious maudlin possibilities of the subject matter and keeping the cinematography choices lush and beautiful, but remaining distant and unfeeling. The film is, for all intents, an extended funeral procession. The cast shuffles through life toward ‘completion,’ the sterilized term for dying on the operating table when too many organs have been harvested to continue life. It’s considered both a desire and a fear.
It’s the way that Romanek manages to make the donors’ plight both not the focus of the individual proceedings yet always there that is the perfect choice for such subject matter. It’s the way the shots are framed, the way a shot of Andrew Garfield feverishly painting to demonstrate his love for Kathy is lost in and dominated by the giant surgical scar arcing across his back. It’s the blocking of Ruth’s death scene, the way the doctors don’t even react when she flatlines, the way they callously unplug the devices and pull the tube from her mouth, the way they take the time to carefully cover their surgical tools with a white sheet, and yet neglect to even bother covering Ruth’s head or closing her eyes the way they would for any human being. The scene lingers on her blank death stare, stillness in response to the hustle and bustle of the operating room. These are the moments that elevate the film to something special.
The film is measured and deliberate in its structure and pacing; no shot is wasted, and nearly every moment has subtext of some subversive variety, designed to constantly reinforce the ‘nothing is as it seems’ aesthetic without overpowering the viewer. The work of Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly is top notch, and they achieve the yeoman’s effort of selling this dystopia chiefly on the strength of their portrayals more than anything else. The razor sadness cuts through every moment without the need to spend each scene crying into someone’s shoulder. Never Let Me Go is beyond such pithy attitudes and expressions. Love does not conquer all, no matter how hard we try to make it true. Romanek plays for keeps, refusing to pull punches in his own way. It’s a titanic achievement, and an indelible cinematic experience to be cherished.