Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel and adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland, Never Let Me Go is an existential science-fiction film that doesn’t rely on gimmicky special effects and, on the surface, looks more like a bittersweet romance set in the English countryside. Director Mark Romanek’s film is set in an alternate universe in which, as we are told in the opening titles, “Science conquered most diseases by 1952 and average life expectancy exceeded 100 years by 1967.” Through twenty-eight year-old Kathy H.’s (Carey Mulligan of An Education) narration, the film flashbacks to her childhood in the English countryside with her friends Tommy and Ruth.
The mysterious Hailsham boarding school they attended is led by a strict headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), who reminds the children how important it is to maintain their health. Things seem idyllic at first but gradually a sense of unease begins to grow. No mention of parents is ever made and the children are fearful of leaving the school grounds due to a number of horrifying stories circulating about what happened to the unfortunate children who wandered past the campus boundaries. One day, the children’s empathic teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) decides to deviate from the lesson plan and talk to the children about their predestinated fate. Gradually, the audience hears a number of cryptic terms used on a regular basis, including “carers”, “donors”, and “reaching completion”. Hailsham seems to be developing these children for some sort of special mission. Never Let Me Go succeeds at slowly building tension and mystery as the answers are gradually revealed. The deliberate pace of the film may be off-putting to some but it succeeds in keeping the audience in the dark right along with the main characters. Unlike many other sci-fi films, Never Let Me Go is subtle and even the smallest gestures or glances between the characters have important implications.
An air of melancholy and resignation suffuses Never Let Me Go and the film grapples with some weighty ideas. Kathy’s aching love triangle with the adult Tommy (Andrew Garfield of The Social Network) and Ruth (Keira Knightly of Pride and Prejudice) is compounded by their fatalistic worldview and destiny. Romanek revisits Mulligan’s sympathetic face in close-ups on a number of occasions as the trio’s lives unravels. They attempt to make the best out of a life that is chosen for them yet they rarely dare to depart from this cruel path, even if it means to be deprived of their own pursuits. On a different level, the film also raises questions about the systematic exploitation of groups of people considered second-class citizens and imagines a reality in which the oppressed have been so thoroughly programmed that they have practically ceased to even consider rebelling.
Never Let Me Go opens at Landmark River Oaks Theatre on October 8.