Spoiler note: if you know nothing at all about the film, note that we discuss some known plot points here. If you want to see the film absolutely cold, please do bear that in mind before reading this review!
I’d heard from numerous reliable sources that Never Let Me Go was a bleak and potentially tear-inducing movie, so I resolved to go into the film with a heart of stone and a face of poker. With the screening room packed with hard-nosed critics, I feared an outburst of weeping and snivelling might be seen as a dreadful faux pas.
Written by Alex Garland and adapted from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go is Parts: The Clonus Horror or Michael Bay’s The Island spliced with the genes of a BBC period drama.
Beginning in an alternate-universe 70s, it charts the friendship of a trio of youngsters, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), who have been bred and reared for their internal organs. Through the use of cloning, the world’s scientists have found a way of extending life spans and defeating disease, but at a terrible emotional cost to the separate class of humans created specifically to save the lives of others.
While they enjoy a relatively comfortable, idyllic existence in a remote boarding school, they will, at some unspecified date in early adulthood, have their organs harvested over a series of operations, and ultimately ‘complete’, the film’s chilling euphemism for death.
Quite why scientists would provide such an expensive location for its legion of organ donors is never explained. After they’ve left school, they’re placed in an equally beautiful cottage straight out of an H E Bates novel. Isn’t this like keeping cattle in a health spa, only to turn them into beef burgers?
Presumably, these are corn-fed, free-range, organic clones for BUPA patients. Before they go under the knife, the recipients of these organs would probably ask, “Has the kidney been locally reared?”
Those on the NHS would presumably have to put up with their own range of battery-farmed clones, reared in wardrobes on a diet of own-brand cola and chicken nuggets.
These thoughts all coursed through my mind in Never Let Me Go‘s earlier scenes, as though the sectors of my brain that deal with cynicism were trying to prevent me from appreciating the true sadness of the film’s premise. Gradually, however, director Mark Romanek’s dignified, low-key direction won me over, and I began to find myself genuinely invested in the fate of Never Let Me Go‘s three leads.
As the inevitability of death becomes ever more present, the trio search, like the Replicants in Blade Runner, for a means of extending their lifespan, and what they discover at the end of their quest is as devastating as it is inevitable.
Although Never Let Me Go‘s cast is uniformly excellent, from the young actors who play the adolescent group of donors, to Charlotte Rampling as a cold-hearted teacher, it’s Carey Mulligan’s understated performance that really sticks in the memory, providing a wonderfully tender narration to the film’s sad events.
Garfield is good, too, as the kind-hearted, yet rather dim Tommy, and his furtive, tender moments with Mulligan are among the film’s finest. Knightley, meanwhile, glowers from beneath an astonishingly geometric fringe as Ruth, whose jealousy and fear fuels her own desire to win Tommy’s affection.
The innocent, naive nature of all three characters, and Tommy in particular, is wonderfully depicted. Their ignorance of the outside world and the day-to-day lives of regular people are discussed in hushed, reverent terms, and they cling, with desperate hope, to rumours that their childhood drawings may hold the key to a stay of execution.
Like Gareth Edwards’ excellent Monsters, Never Let Me Go makes sparing use of the sci-fi genre’s familiar trappings. Instead, it’s a gentle, uncomplicated relationship drama, and a genuinely moving meditation on death, and how its looming presence means that every love affair must end in tragedy.
When Never Let Me Go reached its final scenes, any traces of cynicism had been methodically chiselled away, and at its conclusion, I realised just how much I’d come to care for its characters’ fates.
As the various battle hardened journalists around me coughed into their hats or pretended to wipe a speck of dust away from their eye, I, too, began to feel a lump begin to form in my throat.
Never Let Me Go is a film about the true value of love, the fleeting nature of life and happiness, and the sad fact that even free-range clones face a lonely, terrible fate.
Never Let Me Go is in UK cinemas from Friday, February 11th.
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