by Tim Ross
An old adage says there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Most of us chuckle and shake our heads in agreement when this saying is dusted off and used in conversation but, deep down, it invokes serious contemplation.
Based on a novel by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go” is a hybrid sci-fi drama set in 1980s England – but not the time or place as we know it – that takes one of these certainties to the extreme.
The film stars Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley as recently-graduated boarding school students in this parallel universe who, like many of their classmates, are not what they seem. In fact, their lives serve an exclusive purpose – to die young so others may live.
I generally don’t like to write too extensively about plot, but it’s impossible to examine where this movie wins and loses without discussing the story at some length.
Kathy (Mulligan) is a thoughtful, musing student at an elite boarding school. She has a crush on Tommy (Andrew Garfield) but watches passively as Ruth (Knightley) steals him away. Typical English boarding school student stuff, right? Perhaps, until a rogue teacher’s conscience gets the best of her and she breaks school code by announcing to the kids they are being raised for one reason only – to have their organs harvested when they reach adulthood.
These students are less than human, at least in the eyes of those who manage and watch over them; they are simply clones bred to supply the English residents with kidneys, livers, lungs, eyes, hearts or whatever other body parts they need to live longer, better lives. Society regards the students with curiosity and only a modicum of pity, and surreptitious experiments in art and relationship pairings are conducted to gauge just how human the clones are.
Meanwhile, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow up as most teenagers do with yearnings, dreams and wayward emotions, with one major exception – they have a known expiration date. By the time they reach their mid- to late-20s and undergo their second or third donation, they know they’ll “complete,” a euphemism for dying.
Their fate is revealed early on so we can contemplate the underlying ramifications alongside the main characters. The ideas are complex, the consequences are huge and that makes for a story that can keep you rapt with attention. But herein lies the flaw that I couldn’t shake.
The filmmakers and actors had to create a world in which these clones were raised to accept their fates without rebellion. After all, don’t we all die at some point? And isn’t it more important to focus on how you will live than when or how you will die? Fair argument, but in “Never Let Me Go,” first-time film director Mark Romanek and writer Alex Garland want it both ways. They want clones that cry, love, feel loss and pain and rail against their fate at times, but that never actually rebel.
Ishiguro stated in an interview that American audiences would have trouble with this idea because Japanese culture holds submission to a difficult fate as heroic. Fair enough, but it remains seemingly inconsistent when the clones are portrayed as feeling the full scope of human emotions, yet never are we treated to one of them fighting their fate even to the extent of considering an option other than subservience.
Mulligan is the only one who really seems to get it. She moves her character along her preordained path with a sort of passive, knowing smile on her face. She rarely wavers as she loses love, innocence and finally the one chance she had at happiness. Had Romanek demanded the same emotional distance among all the actors, the film might have worked better for me.
As it stands, “Never Let Me Go” is still a compelling offering and one you should consider. Even if it reminds you that you will indeed die and pay taxes.
Grade 3/4 Stars