Set in an alternative present to our own, and looking back at an alternative past, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is a sobering and moving examination of mortality and the implications of man’s endeavours with regard to genetic experimentation. It is, of course, science fiction, but it has very little in common with other films that spring readily to mind when mentioning that genre, though Blade Runner and Moon both touch on similar themes. If you haven’t seen it or read the book please note that this review contains spoilers.
The screenplay – by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland – is set in England, which is almost identical to the country we know except for the fact that scientific breakthroughs have extended the average life expectancy to over 100 years and have largely eradicated cancer and other life-threatening diseases. (I also like to think that in this alternative universe Jason Statham is celebrated as the greatest actor of his generation, having won multiple Oscars for his collaborations with Michael Haneke and Werner Herzog. It’s worth noting that Ishiguro has to date failed to confirm or deny whether this is the case.) To facilitate this, cloning techniques have been developed and clones are harvested for their healthy organs. The clones are operated on up to four times before the subsequent illnesses take their toll and – usually by the mid-to-late twenties – they die, or to use the lingo of the film, “complete”.
Three such clones are Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), Tommy D (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). In the first act they are students at a special boarding school called Hailsham, in the 1970s. (The trio here, in their early teens, are expertly played by Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purnell.) Kathy harbours strong feelings for the misfit Tommy, an unpopular and initially uncommunicative boy who struggles to control his anger, yet it is the more precocious Ruth with whom Tommy enters into an innocent relationship.
Hailsham is an odd, austere environment, where artistic pursuits are encouraged instead of traditional subjects like maths or biology, and students are chastised for minor health-threatening indiscretions such as smoking. The apparently all-female staff includes Sally Hawkins as teacher Miss Lucy, Charlotte Rampling as stern headmistress Miss Emily and Nathalie Richard as ‘Madame’, a lady who visits to collect artwork by the children that will be included in “The Gallery”. This is the pinnacle of achievement at Hailsham, rather than any exam performance. The pupils are largely kept uninformed about the outside world, or indeed their destiny, but this changes when Miss Lucy decides she must break the news to her class, and tells them exactly what they are and what lies in store as donors.
The teacher is subsequently fired, and the story jumps forward a few years to the early 1980s, the trio having now left the school. Tommy and Ruth are still together, and along with Kathy they are sent to live in cottages on a farm. There are other, older clones already living here, and the trio remark on their relative naivety as they experience life away from Hailsham for the first time. There is talk of a ‘deferral’, which is a rumoured extension of life that is granted to clones who are able to convince the authorities that they are in love. Kathy, who appears to be in love with Tommy, finds it increasingly difficult to live with her friend and confidant while he remains in a relationship with Ruth, and decides eventually to leave the farm. She applies to become a ‘carer’, a job where she is required to look after and support other clones as they move towards completion; as a result she is granted a few extra years of life before her first operation.
In the third act, the plot follows Kathy as she works as a carer. She meets up with Ruth, who is in a hospital after her first donation. Ruth has split from Tommy, and is suffering badly after her first operation. When the pair reunite with Tommy he too is severely ill, and Ruth apologises to them both for keeping them apart for so long. Kathy and Tommy finally embark on a relationship, with the possibility of a deferral giving them hope that they can enjoy each other’s company for a little while longer.
As you may have guessed, this is a melancholic film, and Romanek successfully creates a downbeat mood, helped considerably by Rachel Portman’s haunting score and Adam Kimmel’s cinematography. Where the childhood scenes take place under bright sunshine, in the latter years as completion approaches the locations used are faded, quiet coastal towns which seem to be perennially under threatening grey rainclouds. (Bexhill-on-Sea, Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare were all used as locations, and will bring back memories of family seaside holidays for lots of British viewers. These are very much the places Morrissey was singing about in Everyday Is Like Sunday.) Where ordinary people in their 20s might discuss the jobs and marriages of their old schoolfriends, in Never Let Me Go the clones discuss the operations and subsequent demises of their former peers matter-of-factly.
There is a quiet relentlessness about the film, a sense throughout that the lead characters are simply on a conveyor belt they are powerless or too under-developed to halt, and despite raised hopes the inevitability of their deaths is the elephant in the room from the moment we find out exactly what they are onwards.
The attitude displayed by the ordinary humans toward the three protagonists in the film is interesting, and very well acted by several minor characters; the clones are often greeted with looks of suspicion and fear by people who are easily able to recognize what they are (their mollycoddled early existence means that Kathy, Ruth and Tommy struggle initially to cope with the outside world, as shown by a nervous attempt to order food in a Norfolk café, and they stand out as a result). In one telling scene at the school a couple of men deliver boxes of unwanted, second hand toys that will be swapped by the children, and they are clearly uncomfortable having to deal with the excited clones. In a key scene at the end Madame tells Kathy and Tommy that the most important thing for people is not to return to the days when the likes of cancer and motor-neurone disease claimed so many lives (the implication being that the humans in this world have long stopped concerning themselves with the ethical implications of their harvesting). Knightley astutely pointed out that the film is “more about humanity’s ability to look the other way … your morals can go out the window if you think you can survive in a certain way, whatever your morals may be”.
Mulligan is very good here, and is surely one of the most exciting young actors working today (as indeed is Garfield, who followed this with his excellent turn as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network.). Where Tommy outwardly displays his unhappiness, she is a picture of inner calm, forever measured and caring in her responses; the character has been raised to accept her fate and the fate of others, and one of the saddest things about Never Let Me Go is seeing her lack of reaction to bad news, her lack of natural emotion. The question of whether these clones have souls hangs throughout the film, and Mulligan’s enigmatic face as she listens to a soul song called “Never Let Me Go” is superbly tantalising. Her performance is key to the film, detached but not cold, and she pitches it just right. A touch more of her narration might have worked well.
By contrast Knightley is required to be more melodramatic, which drew her a little bit of unjust criticism at the time of the film’s release. At first her character’s reactions, which are more pronounced and attention-stealing than those of the others, do not quite fit with what we see: her relationship with Tommy is supposedly strained, but is not in reality particularly turbulent. This is because Garland’s script incorporates the important suggestion that she is copying the speech and actions of American actors she has seen on TV. The question to contemplate throughout the film is whether any of these clones are actually in love with each other, despite the fact they repeatedly say they are. Are their actions and reactions truly spontaneous and real, or are they are just copying the few humans they come into contact with and building on the role-playing exercises we see them undertake as children? It seems for long periods as though Kathy is truly in love with Tommy, but by the end it’s difficult to truly say for sure. This is wisely left wide open.
Ironically, one of the most moving scenes of Never Let Me Go sees Knightley lying completely still on the operating table. Ruth unsurprisingly doesn’t pull through when her liver is extracted, and yet despite the inevitability of this death it’s still odd to see the lack of effort made by the doctors to keep her alive. Where normally we see increased desperation when we hear that a patient is flatlining, these professionals simply pack their instruments up and leave the operating theatre without as much as a second glance at the body that lies in front of them. It’s a great scene that exposes the underlying attitudes to the clones in this world; life is much easier if they are simply considered as commodities: piles of organs, flesh and bones as opposed to sentient beings with souls that deserve more.
Never Let Me Go is the kind of film that stays with you for a long period after watching it. It may depress some viewers, but rather than being just a glum film about death, it raises ethical questions about genetic engineering that we are facing today and probably will have to address much more thoroughly as a race in the near future. I did initially feel quite downbeat at the end, but since then I have actually found thinking about the film to be a strangely uplifting experience; it has made me think about my own life and my loved ones even more than usual in recent days.
Whether it is a successful adaptation of the book I can’t say, but Romanek has made a moving film that is intelligent, graceful, measured and thought-provoking. There are good performances by the cast and the screenplay flows well, with good characterisation. Romanek is better known for music videos, principally the video for ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash and ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails. In his short-form career he has received more than 20 MTV Video Music Awards and three Grammy Awards – more than any other director. While certainly not a novice (he has also been 2nd assistant director to Brian De Palma and directed the creepy Robin Williams-starring thriller One Hour Photo just over ten years ago), it is still surprising to see such mature, confident work; for a second feature this is remarkably assured, even if it falls short of being a masterpiece, and even though some may baulk at its quaintly retro portrayal of pastoral English life.
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Written by: Alex Garland (screenplay), Kazuo Ishiguro (story)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley
Running Time: 103 Minutes