Never Let Me Go is one of those films that feels deceptively simple or perhaps too abrupt on first viewing, but which broadens and deepens and sticks around in memory long after you leave the theater. The film, directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and based on the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), is a genre-bending, tender, and provocative gem that should provide plenty of discussion fodder for thoughtful filmgoers.
The story begins at Hailsham, a boarding school somewhere in rural England, full of beautiful, cheerful children who paint pictures in classrooms, play cricket in the field, and sing songs about how great Hailsham is. It's an idyllic community, but something feels off. The students don't seem quite normal (and why no mention of any parents?). One day a rogue teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), speaks up and gravely informs the students in her class that none of them will grow up to be actors, artists, teachers, or anything. None of them will live past adulthood. Miss Lucy is immediately fired, but the secrets of Hailsham can't be hid forever. As the students grow older, they learn the truth of what Miss Lucy alluded to.
(Mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that wasn't alluded to in the film's official trailer.)
Turns out Hailsham is one of many boarding schools across England where children who were created in labs—that is, as clones—are raised to be healthy physical specimens who will one day (in their twenties) begin the process of donating their organs and body parts, piece by piece, until they "complete" (usually on the third or fourth, but sometimes the first, donation). All along they are taught the dignity of their vocation, the importance of their slow-death sacrifice. Cancer is all but thwarted and the life-expectancy of "originals" has been extended to 100 because of the National Donor Programme, after all. As such, the children mostly approach their fate with a sense of stiff-upper-lip duty.
The film is not primarily about the sci-fi horror of this dystopia, however. It's not an action film or thriller, or even a political film in any way. Unlike its many "British dystopia" forbears (Brave New World, 1984, Children of Men), Never Let Me Go is a largely quiet, existential rumination about three young "donors" living within this world, wrestling with questions of love, meaning, and purpose when they know time is running out. These three include Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley), a trio of friends from the earliest days of Hailsham. As the film recounts their all-too-short lives, we witness their confusion amidst adolescent love triangles (Kathy loves Tommy, but Tommy and Ruth are together), their coming-of-age searches for identity, and their experiences of angst upon recognizing just how impotent idealism can be against an unchangeable system which decided their fate before they were even a first cell.
Elegantly photographed with cold hues and soft edges by Adam Kimmel (Capote, Lars and the Real Girl), this film embodies a deeply patient, stylistic restraint (aside from a slightly overblown score by Rachel Portman) that leaves the viewer to make sense of how to see or feel the images before them. The stellar performances by the three leads are similarly restrained, nuanced and appropriately hard to read (especially Mulligan's).