Never Let Me Go is one of those films that seems to have been round an awful long time, through the festival circuit and a painfully extended release. Finally, the film is available to see this weekend in the UK and, dutifully, off I went to see a movie that has been winning a great deal of praise while being almost entirely overlooked by the award-givers. I think I could see why.
The novel Never Let Me Go was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. Ishiguro had already won that prize for The Remains of the Day and, not surprisingly, the superb film adaptation of that novel couldn’t help but create interest in this latest movie version of a much-loved read by a popular author. Indeed, on paper, all is rosy.
Never Let Me Go is set in the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, a country and time recognisable in all ways but one. The crisis for replacement organs has been solved by the creation of living donors – children who are bred to have their organs harvested, brought up in isolated boarding schools, such as Hailsham, where they believe that to leave the confines of the school grounds means abandonment and certain death. The children are not too clear about their fate but one new teacher, a ‘guardian’, reveals the truth to a class of fourth years – a series of donations before finally, the act of completion, death on the operating table, with their most vital organs harvested when they are about 30 years old.
That class contains the three young people whose story we follow in Never Let Me Go – Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). Both girls love Tommy and he chooses the one who teases him the most, Ruth. But the most heartrending moment of their school lives is not when they sing in gratitude to Miss Emily, the headmistress (Charlotte Rampling), or when they learn about their fate from Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), it’s when they’re given the chance to swap tokens for bits of broken toys, scraps from other happy childhoods, and they’re grateful.
Once they leave school at 18, the young people move to live on a country farm with other donors from different schools. There they meet a young couple in love who tell them about a rumour they’ve heard from Hailsham – that if you can prove true love, you are saved. And that’s when things get particularly painful.
To look at, Never Let Me Go is meticulous. The details all seem correct. In that, director Mark Romanek does a good job.
However, the acting is surprisingly easy to fault – Keira Knightley, as usual, is torturous both to watch and listen to. Andrew Garfield seemed distracted and not believably odd. There can be no doubts about the acting chops of Carey Mulligan and she delivers her lines and accepts repeated news of the most depressing kind with a sad stoicism that is clearly well done but it does not pierce any deeper than the surface. Something is missing from all three and it’s too easy to dismiss the lack of emotion as being because they’re not totally human. The film tries to stress that in every way but one they are.
While all three are intelligent, imaginative and passionate, they accept their fate with submission and tears. Only Tommy has his screaming fits but Cathy hugs them out of him and, in her role as carer, calmly watches her friends die. In the voiceover, Cathy tells us how happy she is that she had any time at all with her love and maybe this is as good as it gets, even if you get to live three score years and ten and not be cut to bits before your 30th birthday.
The donors have to learn how to interact with the normal world, how to order a cup of tea in a cafe, but not once do they seek to challenge or to escape their fate, and nothing about it is quick and painless.
I did cry, it’s hard not to when faced with something so depressing, but tears were all I took away and they dried quickly.