A note: This review divulges certain plot details that, though in the trailer, might be considered spoilers by the particularly cautious.
Cheerful, rosy-cheeked children grow into tentative teenagers and pensive, pallid young adults in Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go.” And they go no further. In the film, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and others like them never reach middle or old age. They die young, their organs harvested to extend the lives of the regular citizens that are glimpsed only on the margins here.
They’re clones, though it’s never so baldly stated. Nothing’s baldly stated in this world, which has cloaked its horrors with a euphemistic vocabulary. The person from whom one might have been copied is a “possible.” The hospital you’re shuffled to after a donation is a “recovery center.” When you pass, after one or two or four donation, you’ve “completed.”
Despite sharing a basic premise with Michael Bay’s “The Island,” “Never Let Me Go” is consciously reluctant sci-fi movie, one that chooses to push explanations for its subdued dystopia aside — it’s really just the stage on which a melancholy romantic triangle forms. Shy Kathy loves the fumbling, rage-prone Tommy from childhood, when they’re growing up in Hailsham, a pastoral boarding school led with cool authority by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) that only sometimes sounds off-key notes (the children are terrified of going outside the grounds, even a few steps beyond the fence). But Ruth, her best frenemy, inserts herself in the midst of their nascence attachment. As they grow into young adults who leave the school for a dorm-like limbo before the surgeries start, this unhappy arrangement — Ruth corralling Tommy into an uncertain relationship, Kathy left on the outside, waiting, waiting — breaks the trio apart.
20 years, 30 — it’s not enough time, but does anyone ever feel they have enough time? If you missed “Never Let Me Go”‘s moral, the film literally lays it out in voiceover on top of the final scene, one of several instances (others involve the unnecessary sweeping in of the score) in which Romanek choices are wobblingly on the nose. They don’t interfere with the film’s emotional sincerity, which reverberates through the excellent performances of its three leads, particularly Mulligan and Garfield, two young actors poised on the brink of stardom.
Here, Mulligan burnishes that quality she flashed in “An Education” of being perceptive beyond her years — more perceptive, sometimes, than she’d really like to be. And Garfield is irresistibly gawkish, able to make his place in the film’s amorous complications seem like neither the result of victimization nor of obliviousness, but of a kind of lack of coordination of his own emotions.
I don’t know that the sweet, sad love story between this unassertive, incurious boy and girl is as thematically central to the film as Romanek, working off a screenplay by “The Beach”‘s Alex Garland, seems to believe. That’s not what’s set the film rattling around my brain the past few day. No, it’s the portrait of compliance in the face of awful injustice that’s haunting, one that’s actually more powerful on screen than it was on the page. None of the children, from Hailsham or from any other less pleasant place, ever considers an alternative to the fate that’s been given them.
Their best hopes are pinned on whispered rumors of deferrals, their worst fears on talk of infinite diminishings, of donation after donation after donation. The ones that don’t want to die nevertheless only consider a way out within the ill-understood structure inside of which they’re imprisoned, and if it’s denied them, they go under the knife as docilely accepting of their place as sheep being herded to slaughter. It’s a depiction that’s frighteningly believable, an abstract psychoanalyzing of how people end up internalizing the systems in which they live, even when those systems keep them down.
“Never Let Me Go” is done in the warm colors of a old postcard, the Hailsham days the brightest and most lustrous, the contrast slowly dripping out as the years progress and the characters find themselves closer to death, living in monochromatic apartments and hospital rooms. Romanek manages a few stand-out visual moments in a film that’s determinedly restrained, in which striking landscapes — a beach empty except for a washed up boat, a tree by a field on the side of the road — dwarf our protagonists, who are, after all, very ordinary girls and boys in this extraordinary world. It’s only in their own hearts that they stand out.
“Never Let Me Go” opens in limited release on September 15th.