Never Let Me Go is an extremely hard film to talk about without revealing spoilers, so if you are intending to watch it, then it might be better if you read the review afterwards.
It takes place in an alternative dystopian 1960s Britain, one of unending grey, clouded beaches, of rain-soaked, wind-swept pavements and perpetual melancholy – everything that exemplifies Bognor in other words. The title card informs us that human life-span has been dramatically increased, the immediate viewer response being, “but at what cost?” and consequently the mind is constantly on the watch for things that don’t quite fit.
The story is told retrospectively by Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), a 30 something reflecting on her days at Hailsham boarding school, a seemingly elite establishment presided over by a stiff, grim headmistress (Charlotte Rampling, who else?). On closer inspection, there’s something not quite right about Hailsham – each student has an electronic tag on their arm; the school’s strictest rules are those regarding health and well-being and pupils are kept in fear of straying too far outside the school’s boundary.
Together with Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Kathy discovers the sinister truth about their existence when she’s 11 years old – their place in society was preordained before birth. When they reach 18, the trio leave school and have their first encounters with the outside world but their friendships are threatened to be torn apart by love and jealousy.
It’s a quiet film, almost the polar opposite of The Island (a typically bombastic Michael Bay film which touched on similar themes). Whereas, the revelation of the truth in The Island was enough to spark outright rebellion, what’s notable about Never Let Me Go is it never even occurs to the children that escape might be possible – their dystopian world is the place where they live and they can think of no other; they live in a prison where they can’t even seen the bars.
It’s tempting to give a thought to the author, Kazuo Ishiguro’s own background – as an Anglo-Japanese author, is exploring the themes of duty and resignation, of stoic, phlegmatic resoluteness an indication of the influence of both those great cultures?
This might be frustrating for some viewers, who will be raging at the characters’ fatalism; when they realise the truth, they don’t seek to escape, merely to delay the inevitable. But consider that this may be a far more realistic portrayal of human nature; most of us don’t fight to change the system, we accept that a certain amount of inevitable suffering is part of our world.
Director Mark Romanek endows his film with a quiet melancholy and populates it with long, lingering shots intended to intensify its isolation and fragile beauty. This is partially successful but the film is almost too detached – there’s never a complete connection with any of the trio despite commendable performances from Mulligan and Garfield; the film aims for profound sadness but achieves hollowness far more often.
Regardless, Never Let Me Go still serves as an effective modern parable which asks poignant questions. What exactly is it to have a soul, to be alive, and by extension, what does it mean to die? – They’re themes that have been explored before in film (usually in a more overt sci-fi setting) but rarely with such delicacy.