Never Let Me Go: A Heartbreaking Sci-Fi Character Study
Michael Bay used the idea of cloning humans to harvest their organs to extend human life as a jump-off point for action scenes and science fiction special effects. Kazuo Ishiguro used the same idea to write a book that focused on characters and emotions. While I haven’t read the novel, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of it, Never Let Me Go, preserves a subtlety rarely seen in films with this high a concept. What would you do if you knew you were never meant to live a full life? Instead of using this question to milk melodramatic performances out of the main three actors, everything is kept very hushed, complacent, and full of a rarely spoken doubt– which reflects true life far more than fist clenching and gnashing of teeth. The relationships are complex and their acceptance of their roles in society is haunting. This is a patient film, a quiet film. It’s also one of the best films so far this year.
An adult Kathy (Carey Mulligan) narrates the story of her life, growing up with her best friend Ruth at a boarding school called Hailsham. We begin to gather fairly early on that these children are being raised specifically as organ donors, and once they are adults their organs are removed one at a time as needed until they “complete,” the school’s frighteningly low-key euphemism for death. Kathy falls for a boy named Tommy, who seem to be right for each other until Ruth steals him away. We watch them grow through the teen years and into adulthood, and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) have stayed together through these years while remaining close to Kathy. They explore the outside world and their relationships with each other. A rumor that’s been around forever spreads to our characters that if two of them can prove they are in love to those in charge, they will be permitted to “defer” and spend a few years together before the operations begin.
Some films stick in your head and haunt you over specific moments. This film has stuck in mine because of the execution as a whole. Since what we perceive to be the main dilemma of their lives is merely an accepted fate to them, a cloud of sadness hangs over every event. They are just like us, more concerned with finding love before they die than the actual death itself. There’s some serious philosophizing written into the story of the film, never expressed through dialogue, always peeking out from beneath the surface. The school raises them to accept a certain vocation in life, rarely addressing and hardly preparing them for the harsh realities which will face them. Does the school help preserve their innocence, or does it merely make them out of touch and unprepared for what lies ahead? Not once will this seemingly-obvious metaphor for the public school system pop into your head, because you will be too focused on the characters developing and growing before you.
The three leads are perfectly portrayed. Keira Knightley does her best work to date as the manipulative, bossy, and ultimately scared Ruth. Her work in the last third of the film is so good that her previous work never could have prepared me for the emotions I felt witnessing her evolution. Carey Mulligan, so wonderful in An Education, is the perfect casting choice for Kathy H. Her eyes are so expressive, and she can convey startling maturity and soul for someone her age. From the moment we first see her on screen, we sympathize with her. I’m not certain that’s something that can be taught– that just comes with being a bonafide movie star. (Also worth noting is the dead ringer for Mulligan they found to play young Kathy H.) The standout of the cast, however, is Andrew Garfield, still only known to most Americans as the young Brit cast as Spider-Man in the upcoming comic franchise reboot. Tommy certainly has issues, both learning disabilities and emotional problems, but Garfield gives him an overwhelmingly sad innocence. Just watch his body language during the film, the way he walks. It’s a performance that is difficult to shake, especially towards the end, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he co-stars in The Social Network which will certainly gain him more praise, this performance would easily be towards the top of the short list for Best Supporting Actor.
Romanek’s execution is mindful and delicate. I find my mind latching onto certain images and quiet moments from the film, and they are rarely the same ones. He never builds up some scenes to be “the big moments”– everything flows smoothly from highs to lows. One character leafs through a dirty magazine. One character hears there’s a woman who looks exactly like her in the village. One character needs crutches. One character listens to a tape that another character bought her. At a time when movies are faster paced and more choppily edited than ever, these subtler moments linger with me in a more meaningful way than any robot-induced explosion ever could. Everyone knows they’re going to die eventually. Most people have some sense of fear of impending death, even if they can ignore it on a daily basis. Here are three characters who are acutely aware of their fates every day, yet they keep on living. There’s something admirable about these three characters, despite their flaws and hangups. They make me want to appreciate life more. How many movies can you say that about?