If you're ever in the mood to fixate on the futility of avoiding your inevitable doom, then boy, does Mark Romanek have the movie for you. Never Let Me Go is a somber, beautiful, and painfully slow rumination on being born to lose—literally, in this case, vital body parts—and accepting your fate with grace. It's pretty depressing.
Although some may find this restrained science-fiction tale to be both sad and inspiring, a reminder to savor what time we have left in this world, I mostly felt a distinct urge to throttle the main characters—which may reveal more about my lack of patience with artful suffering than it does with Romanek's abilities as a director. I doubt that a better adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro could be filmed; in tone and story, it matches the award-winning piece of speculative fiction beautifully. If only its damned protagonists weren't so annoyingly ineffectual.
Never Let Me Go begins with the daily routines of Hailsham, an English boarding school full of bustling children during the late 1970s. While they appear perfectly normal, the school is not; the children are forbidden from going beyond certain boundaries around the grounds, and they must wear electronic wristbands at all times. They are not taught life skills, but rather how to do things like order a cup of tea at a cafe. When a new teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), dares to reveal the truth of their existence to the children, she is immediately removed by the steely headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), who vows to remain unswayed by non-believers.
The school's true mission is rather disturbing: The kids are actually clones being raised to eventually surrender their internal organs when needed by their "originals." All of these laughing, playing children (lovingly photographed by cinematographer Adam Kimmel) are doomed to die slow, painful deaths when they're finally chopped into pieces around their mid-20s. No one seems particularly miffed by this, except perhaps the vanquished Miss Lucy, who does not reappear.
This societal acceptance of engineered human sacrifice is Never Let Me Go's most unsettling theme, and its most potent piece of science fiction. The film's unflinching look at the victims we create in society's relentless pursuit of convenience is memorable and thought-provoking. (Anti-abortion activists, this is your art movie.) But its main characters are so flaccid, it's difficult to work up much sympathy for them. Worse, the script does not permit them even a moment of personal satisfaction, as if to say: "What's the point?"
The story follows three friends after they leave Hailsham, tracking them through the government cloning program. Our main character, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), is a selfless sort who becomes a "carer" to other clones as they go through "completion." Ruth (Keira Knightley) has jealousy issues, and steals away Kathy's true love, Tommy (Andrew Garfield), an angry artist who does not appear to have enough gumption to reject Kathy. Although fully aware of what will soon be done to them, they go about the mundane business of living in the Cottages, a residential complex where they're allowed some independence. When they talk of their fates, it's with resignation—no one speaks of running away, or fighting back, or committing suicide, or even mildly protesting. That's that.
However, an older couple at the Cottages relates a rumor: If you can prove that you're really in love, then you can apply for a deferment. This doesn't inspire much hope among the trio, but it is a possibility that leads them on a small quest near the film's end as the characters reach their final months. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well. Although we're allowed something of a "showdown" between Kathy and Tommy and the still-unrepentent Miss Emily, the result is simply yet more quiet acquiescence. Couldn't Kathy be permitted a rejoinder, a declaration of their humanness, a disapproving look? Something? Anything?
Nada. Our heroine quietly suffers from her childhood to her death, with nary a bit of personal happiness in between, making no complaints and bearing a wistful smile throughout. So, maybe that's the point: We condition ourselves to unquestioningly accept our doom, whatever doom that may be, to the point that we don't know how to change our fate. Okay. But that doesn't allow for much of an upside: The human spirit is able to withstand horrible things—and not complain. Hmmm. In terms of speculative fiction, this doesn't seem very realistic to me; even if the clones were bred for submission, somebody somewhere would be fighting this system. That missing voice makes Never Let Me Go unremittingly bleak.
But don't necessarily take my word for it. Never Let Me Go is an "Art with a capital A" film that may provoke different conclusions from different viewers. And that ambiguity is to be appreciated in this age when studios deliver nothing more than the most obvious endings. Just don't go see it if you're already feeling fatalistic.