Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go
is the kind of film that demonstrates the power of subtlety. Without
showing a single futuristic device or advanced machine, it embodies true
science fiction. Without showing a single fascist guard or
fist-pounding authoritarian leader, it projects a haunting vision of an
oppressive alternative reality. It is a beautiful, quiet film that
simultaneously explores the most difficult emotional transitions we must
all face growing up, while horrifying us with a world where man abuses
the increasingly god-like powers of technology in a fundamentally
immoral way. The two effects accentuate each other flawlessly.

a title card telling us that a medical breakthrough in the 1950s
increased life expectancy to over 100 years by 1967, the film begins
with a short narration. A woman named Kathy H watches the set-up for a
surgery and explains that though she is an excellent “carer” and is
proud of her work, she can’t help but be concerned about what it means
for the people it affects.

then move back in time to the 1970s at a boarding school in the British
countryside, where we’re introduced to a class of children, including
Kathy H and her two friends. Here Romanek deliberately crafts the
bedrock of the film- the complex relationship between these three
people. The young Kathy H is a sweet child and friends with the more
aggressive Ruth, who teases her for her fascination with the odd boy in
the class, Tommy. To Kathy’s confusion, Ruth ends up kissing Tommy, and
they begin a relationship that turns Kathy into a broken-hearted

institution at which they live is shown to be a conservative,
highly-structured school where the children believe that going a step
past the fence will surely get them killed. This is not The Village,
where obedience is enforced by threat of monsters, but rather the more
simple acceptance you find in children, that the worst-case scenario is
the most likely. An uneasy young teacher joins the facility and after
observing the children for a a short time, reveals to her class and the
audience what makes this school so shocking. This revelation comes
mid-way in the first act, and is brilliantly timed so that we see enough
with these children to learn who they are and what their relationships
will be before the baggage of their role in the world is revealed. The
revelation comes early enough though, that it isn’t a disingenuous
twist, but rather part of the film’s world building.

What makes the film so unique, and allows
it to so effectively tell the story of these particular characters is
that the revealed system is never questioned. There is no mention of
revolution or escape, no allusions to even questioning the system by
those that are a part of it. Some of the plot does revolve around the
possibility of being granted an exception within the system for a brief
period, but even that is done so with the complete understanding that it
is a temporary delay. In fact, there are only a few shots in the whole
film that quietly, passively establish that there would be any
difficulty in running away at all. And yet, these are not brainwashed
characters- sheltered perhaps, but still full, real people with emotions
and thoughts of their own. This is the trick- the disconcerting,
alternate-reality is simply a background, alluded to with a vocabulary
of gentle euphemisms. Right out in front are the characters that we care
about, and while our hearts ache for them because of their misfortune,
our hearts ache even more for their universal pains.

story moves forward in time periodically, and we see how the lives of
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy (now played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly,
and Andrew Garfield) have changed. They leave the boarding school and
are housed throughout the countryside with other teenagers, and gain the
first adult freedoms they’ve yet experienced. They live quiet,
sedentary lives in charming villages, but are able to visit the cities
when they like. As sex, more worldly friends, and pop culture begin
entering their lives, we see familiar pains of young adulthood. Tommy
and Ruth have continued their relationship, and Kathy remains their best
friend, though she harbors the same love for Tommy. Faced with his
increasingly adult relationship with Ruth, she is frightened by her own
sexuality and that of those around her. Ruth experiences frustrations
that, while tied to the unique conceit of the film, are no different
than most adolescent bouts with nihilism and cynical philosophizing.
Like all teenage males, Tommy handles his raging hormones and confused
romantic feelings as deftly as a large boulder.

Kathy begins her role as a carer and finds that life has a way of
pulling you apart from people and shifting your concerns so quickly that
you don’t realize how much things have changed (and how impossible it
is to take them back to where they were) until long after it’s happened.
It is these pains, frustrations, and complexities of becoming an adult
that make this story so special, as they are all perfectly articulated
in the film.

cast is uniformly great, even if Keira Knightly’s character lacks as
much dimension as I would have liked. This is not to say she’s not a
complex character, but much more of her struggle is left to the
imagination since the story is ultimately concerned with Kathy and
Tommy’s relationship. Carey Mulligan is absolutely radiant in this film,
gracefully protraying Kathy with the deep pain of adolescence/early
adulthood and the early wisdom of an inherently mature person. Andrew
Garfield (who is set to be a much bigger star in Hollywood soon)
excellently brings the always childish, always sweet Tommy to life.

While I’m reticent to mention Atonement with its odd emotional distance, Never Let Me Go
is similar in that is marked with the melancholy of youthful mistakes
that stain a relationship irreparably. Kathy especially must also learn
to accept that life, death, and change do not answer to love, only to
time. The film is tragic, though I don’t want to convey a soul-crushing
joylessness- there is beauty and fun in lives of these characters. If
there is one over-arching flaw in the film though, it’s that it doesn’t
adequately focus on the wonder of those brief times in life when
everything has lined up. We could have used some more minutes with these characters at their happiest. The potency with which it evokes so many of
life’s hard lessons though, makes it too powerful of an experience to

have not read the British novel by Kazuo Ishiguro on which the film is
based, but I can say the film finds a poetry with which to bring it to
life, through stunning work from cinematographer Adam Kimmel, and
composer Rachel Portman. The pace is deliberate and could strike some as
dull, but Never Let Me Go
stumbles only twice as far as I’m concerned; by poorly staging a scene
towards the end (where the horrific extent of the film’s conceit is more
fully explained), and leaving in a final line that is far too
on-the-nose. Otherwise, I was completely swept up in this emotional
journey and dismayed with every subtle look at the world these
characters inhabit. Never Let Me Go has the potential to be a science-fiction that, along with films like Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and Children Of Men,
inhabits an end of the spectrum that is concerned with removing us just
only slightly from our world, to bring us much closer to ourselves.

9.1 out of 10