Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlette Rampling
Release: Feb TBA
Running Time: 103 minutes
We are, most of us, pretty familiar with dystopia. An outsider, or group of outsiders, rises up in opposition of some malignant, controlling force. Sometimes they overthrow it, or at least register some level of victory, however ambiguous, as with Children of Men. Sometimes, as in 1984, the system consumes them. But always – always – there is the fight, the struggle to overturn whatever dark elements have taken hold.
There is no fight within Never Let Me Go. There is no conflict, no resistance, no tiny, token victory. The fate of the protagonists is chillingly accepted, their passivity devastating.
The film, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, weaves an understated hopelessness through a well-worn science-fiction concept, telling the story of a group of clones created so their organs could be harvested for medical purposes. Taking place in an alternate Britain in the late twentieth century, where life-expectancy has risen to over 100 years, we first meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as children at Hailsham, a country boarding school. At first their lives seem idyllic, sunset hues and natural imagery creating a sense of a privileged rural seclusion, but the edges are frayed with tension. A new teacher, Miss Lucy, questions the children as to why they seem afraid to leave the grounds: their replies, as with The Village, hint at rumours and misinformation that have distorted their sense of reality.
The initial impressions of privilege are quickly worn down by the faded interiors, the dorm rooms sparse and colourless, the classroom desks worn and cracked. The students collect mismatched tokens to exchange for junk, their uncontrolled excitement at odds with ragged castoffs on display. Visitors to the school shudder visibly as they enter.
For the children, of course, this all goes unnoticed. We’re led to assume that they’ve experienced nothing else, and whilst we’re drawing dark conclusions they’re growing up, and falling in love. Kathy and Tommy’s growing affection for each other is tracked from early concern to backward glances in assembly, shared mealtimes and thoughtful gifts, until finally he’s stolen from her by a jealous Ruth. It’s a love triangle that dominates the rest of the film, as they leave Hailsham for a group of farmhouses shared with people from other institutions similar to their own. Food and supplies are delivered regularly in a van marked National Donor Programme, but otherwise they’re pretty much unsupervised.
Which makes their inaction all the more awful. They each know what awaits them, each fully aware of the various stages mapped out until their ‘completion’ not long hence, but they do nothing to prevent it. At no point is there even the suggestion of escape. Many, many questions are raised regarding the extent of surveillance and control that they are under – wristbands clock their return home, their arms mechanically waving them to the sensor – but none are answered, and nothing is challenged. But that’s the point: these are people – creatures, as they’re referred to at one point – who have known no other life, for whom the idea of challenge would be incomprehensible. They’re unable, even, to order food in a seaside restaurant, so far from their experience is it.
As a story it’s horrifying, our gradual awareness of their circumstance – more clearly signposted than in the prose – quickly turning to frustration at its hopelessness. To be sure this is not an easy watch, and not one easily shrugged off or recovered from. All of the leads are excellent, Carey Mulligan particularly so, but Andrew Garfield’s performance is arguably the most affecting, his hope the last to fade like embers dying in his eyes.
Technically it’s quietly beautiful, long takes and nostalgic palettes suffusing every frame with an aching, undisguised sadness, ever-present and at times overwhelming. The soundtrack is simple, a recurring motif echoing both the melancholy themes and the character’s calm acceptance of their tragedy. This is low-key filmmaking, certainly, but no less confident for it: Mark Romanek has done menace, in One Hour Photo, and here he’s nailing pathos.
Is it Oscar-baiting? Possibly: it’s certainly been timed to hit awards season, but it definitely deserves some recognition. Whether it gets it is another question: the trailers don’t sell the film right, and there will be many who dislike the slow, measured pace and the lack of clear exposition. But Never Let Me Go isn’t a story about answers, nor even, really, about clones – it’s about our own powerlessness in the face of larger forces. And we can shout and scream and rage and try our hardest to break those forces down, but ultimately the true measure of our lives is in the relationships we form, however they may end.