WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Childhood friends Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up in a strangely limiting school, not daring to leave the grounds. As they mature, the reason why is made clear: they are ‘donors’, destined to die young in the service of a society they will never be a part of. Whilst they live, their lives are complicated by love affairs and the elusive possibility of a stay of execution – if two of them can prove that they’re in love.
It’s 1978, and three children grow up within the confines of Hailsham school: Kathy H (Izzy Meikle-Small as a youngster,Carey Mulligan as an adult), Ruth (Ella Purnell/Keira Knightley), and angry, lonely Tommy (Charlie Rowe/Andrew Garfield). Under the stern gaze of headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), the children are taught a little but are mainly kept healthy, for a specific reason; as caring teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) tells her class to her own detriment, they are all to become donors, giving up their organs to help others to live to be 100 or older thanks to advances in medical science, though they will die – or ‘complete’ – whilst they are still relatively young. The children grow and Kathy falls in love with Tommy, only for Ruth to get there first. When the trio leave school to join other donors in the limited freedom of The Cottages, they learn of a rumour that they can defer their donations if they can prove that they are in love. If Kathy is unable to do this with Tommy, she decides that she might as well become a carer and escort others through their donations. Although the trio eventually separate, it’s inevitable that their paths will cross again before their brief lives are over.
It’s fair to say that – following the format of a question popular in aptitude tests – Never Let Me Go is to The Island as Deep Impact is to Armageddon; meaning, in short, that whereas Michael Bay’s films offer action-packed solutions to potentially earth-shattering events, Deep Impact and Never Let Me Go present the thoughtful, fatalistic alternative. In many respects, Mark Romanek’s decision to present Kazuo Ishiguro’s story as a mood piece* serves the subject matter really well. Our protagonists’ lives are almost certainly going to be cut short, so it’s right that an air of doom hangs over Kathy, Ruth and Tommy’s intense love triangle. Their emotions, played out with a forlorn passion, are bolstered by both the eponymous torch song to which Kathy listens and the achingly lovely score by Rachel Portman. It’s acted well, too: the children are all good and the transition from child actors to adults is entirely believable. Mulligan has an achingly lovely, expressive face, while Knightley, not my favourite actress, is extremely good: hard, manipulative, yet eventually pathetic and tragic. I was more puzzled than gripped by Tommy – he seems to inspire pity rather than love – but Garfield fully inhabits his man-child role, emphasising the point that while he’s just a bunch of spare parts to society, he’s capable of love and being loved like everyone else.
The set-up of Never Let Me Go is also very effective, at least on the surface. The donors’ world is largely created through the use of a simple time-shift, the 1970s in Hailsham resembling the 1950s, the mid-80s the early-70s, and so on, the donors living on the cast-off articles of mainstream society. You can take the film to task for its science-fiction elements if you like – and I’m about to – but it’s clear that, like Twelve Monkeys, how these things have come to pass is less important than how everyone feels about the hand they’ve been dealt.
At least, that’s what the filmmakers want us to feel. The difficulty with this kind of tale – if you want more from it than beautiful atmospherics – is that it poses more questions than answers, specifically about how the film’s alternative Britain came about. Are we really supposed to blindly accept that the ‘normal’ population – including the travel agents and the ordinary old folks in the café – want to live forever, and have no ethical qualms about breeding people for organ farming? And do the donors not have the mental capacity to question or resist the enforcing authorities? The Island raises these issues too; but for all its faults, Bay’s film does give some answers, including what happens to those who try to escape. Never Let Me Go shows us that the donors are tagged, but not what happens if a donor attempts to flee; and it’s not good enough to say that these details are ultimately unimportant, because the film is a metaphor for cloning, class, or society as a whole, or that it’s explained better in the book (I don’t actually know if it is). While I don’t need to know everything about the film’s alternate reality, it needs to feel much less flimsy than it does. For example, Tommy’s idea that the Powers That Be might assess people’s souls from their childhood paintings always sounds rubbish (as – spoilers – it turns out to be). And while it may be a facetious point, for all that I could look at Mulligan all day, I’d had quite enough of her crying on demand by the film’s conclusion.
There’s a quiet, haunting beauty about Never Let Me Go which will inevitably make it a favourite with sensitive youths facing unrequited love for the first time. And there’s certainly a place for this sort of material, carefully realised and beautifully played as it is; it’s just that, for me, the really intriguing events are going on elsewhere else in the film’s universe. I don’t want more of the endless, dumb action that The Island had to offer, but – to conform, I suppose, to male stereotypes – I’d like a bit more action and far fewer tears.
NOTES: One of the few other films I describe as a mood piece is Sunshine, also scripted by Alex Garland. Coincidence?