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.

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as best friends

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as best friends

(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.

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Tommy and Kathy

Tommy and Kathy

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).

Some will say that the film offers very little reason to care for its characters aside from pitying their genuinely tragic plight. Indeed, one does feel distant from these characters, just as they (mostly) feel distant from one another and, in the end, from themselves. Part of the film's haunting ambiance resides in its stoic, Zen-like gaze, observing its characters and landscapes with reticent objectivity, acutely aware of, and yet sufficiently distant from the horror so as to be unharmed by its crushing matter-of-factness.

If the film feels cold, or disturbingly ambivalent, it's because this is the world it seeks to portray. It's a world functioning with workaday diligence, committed above all to moving beyond the outmoded doubts, guilt, or ethical qualms that jeopardize the "progressive" utopia toward which the "donation" program is aimed. 

Ruth and Kathy

Ruth and Kathy

What's especially startling is that even the condemned seem to accept their role in this brave new world, hardly protesting the screamingly unjust (to us) life they've been made to live. To them, it's the role they were born into, an accepted fate with no known (and few desired, it seems) alternatives. The tragedy of this world is in part that its victims hardly even acknowledge the tragedy. In fits and starts they do experience love, and passion, and flickers of some spark of longing to experience the transcendent … but it's never quite grasped, never fully realized. The insistent, confident, eternal emotion of the title—the name of a song Kathy listens to on a cassette—is but a curiosity, albeit a strangely resonant curiosity, to these donor youth whose existence is wholly framed by temporality. They were born to die, one organ at a time, so why bother with a distraction like love?

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Ultimately, though, aren't we all born to die? The painful paradox Kathy recognizes by the end of the film is that the humans she is dying to save will also die one day. Everyone "completes." In the end, what are any of us to make of the time we were allowed to be alive?

Never Let Me Go leaves us with this and other questions, quietly guiding us to consider what it means to be human. Is the purpose of life the prevention of death (whether one's own, or someone else's?), or are we given breath for some higher purpose, some bigger picture beyond our inescapable mortality? If we only have a few years of life on this earth—as opposed to 100—is our purpose necessarily any less significant?

Director Mark Romanek on the set

Director Mark Romanek on the set

Midway through the film there is a poignant scene where Ruth thinks she sees her "original"—that is, the person she was modeled after—but realizes that it isn't really them. The specter of origins haunts her, as it does all "donors" who had no parents, but feel the lack acutely. What is it in Ruth that persistently nudges her in the direction of her beginnings, as if the key to her own being resides in meeting the person whose genetic likeness she bears?

Perhaps it's the same longing that itches any of our souls, that guides any of us toward our Creator—that mysterious being in whom we suspect, hope, and ultimately must trust our ultimate purpose resides.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. This film seems to ask, "What makes us human?" Does the film answer this question? How would you answer it?
  2. Why do you think a society would bother with something like "Carers" if it could also support the clones-for-organ-donation program?
  3. What does the "sanctity of life" look like in this film? Which characters, actions, or scenes seemed to best embody the sacredness of human life?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Never Let Me Go is rated R for some sexuality and nudity. There are a few brief sex scenes, and a scene in which we see some topless women on magazine pages. The general tone of the film is fairly bleak and disturbing, which also makes it inappropriate for children. It is a film for adults and mature adolescents, a film of deep ideas that could provoke healthy discussion among some Christian communities and families.

Never Let Me Go
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(11 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for some sexuality and nudity)
Directed By
Mark Romanek
Run Time
1 hour 43 minutes
Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield
Theatre Release
October 15, 2010 by Fox Searchlight
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