Never Let Me Go
has a premise at odds with itself, a conflicted condition that can’t be
salvaged by a trio of fine performances. Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo
Ishiguro’s acclaimed 2005 novel concerns the romantically prickly relationship
in 1970s England of three friends – Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira
Knightley) and the boy they both covet, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) – who all live
and study at Hailsham boarding school, a rural institution where the children
are carefully monitored for artistic abilities and physical fitness. Strange
clues abound as to the truth of their circumstances, though it’s not long
before a new teacher (Sally Hawkins) informs them of their fundamental nature [spoilers inevitably follow]: they are
clones designed to grow into early middle age, at which time they’ll be
harvested for their organs (during a series of procedures politely known as
“donations”) until they die (euphemistically dubbed “completion”).
Romanek’s drama follows the three through higher learning and then out into the confounding outside world, where, after Kathy and Ruth’s jealous clash over Tommy, they more or less quietly accept their destinies, though not before Kathy and Tommy (embodied with an understated, nuanced sense of longing and discomfort by Mulligan and Garfield) make a late-inning attempt for a deferral on the start of their donation duty. This one stab at prolonging life, however, comes too late, and in too meek a fashion, for a story that depicts its central players as soulful humans no different from their “originals,” yet then asks us to accept that such clones (on an individual or collective level) would never think to rebel against their fate. Scripted by Alex Garland with little of the complex, ambiguous character interiority that defined Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go posits Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as capable of love, fear, spite, warmth and existential rage, and then cancels out that depiction by also casting them as docile sheep so thoroughly conditioned that, even upon learning their future, they exert no free will. Blade Runner’s replicants they most certainly are not.
Of course, Ishiguro and Romanek mean for the kids’ unique reality to be so rigidly engrained that acquiescence to being “donors” is the only logical course of action. Stand-ins for whatever oppressed minorities one might choose, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy – because their conditioning has negated only the impulse for freedom (not any other emotion or urge) – come off as merely devices in a rickety allegory. Toss in an oblique, thinly sketched portrait of a citizenry perfectly comfortable with slaughtering genetic replicas for medical care – epitomized by a scene in which Ruth is allowed to die on the operating table by doctors who treat her as so much meat – and the film’s conceit begins to crumble under the weight of unpersuasive details. To their credit, Mulligan and Garfield, especially in a late scene of crushing disappointment, generate heartfelt pathos despite their protagonists’ generally unbelievable responses to their prescribed paths. Yet Romanek’s superficially beautiful, often haunting direction is undercut by frequent cutaways to heavy-handed symbols (a beached boat, a flying dove), and his reasonably nimble storytelling eventually gives way to a final scene that, with a stunning lack of grace, bluntly articulates the material’s readily apparent thematic message.