Red Alert! Red Alert!: The following review is chock full o spoilers. Proceed at your own risk…
The opening scenes of Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro chilling novel, seem familiar—and yet ever so slightly off.
We’re at Havisham’s, a boarding school of some sort in England—and the children are well-behaved, as British school children tend to be, and dressed in tweedy gray uniforms, as British school children tend to wear. They eat in a cafeteria, play football (or soccer if you like), and the girls whisper about the boys.
But why is Mrs. Havisham (Charlotte Rampling) insistent that these children, in particular, can never smoke and must take excellent care of their bodies? Why is the school nurse’s office more like an ultra-sterile hospital ward, with several doctors and nurses milling about importantly in white coats? And why is there a rumor that leaving the school’s grounds will result in immediate death?
Because these children are different from other children—they’re clones (although the film actually never uses that word), specifically bred to be used as spare parts. They will grow up, but just barely, and start making their “donations.” After the third donation, they’re usually dead.
We find out the horrible truth the same way the children do: When a young teacher (Sally Hawkins), with a mixture of sympathy and cruel bluntness, tells the children their fate. She is promptly dismissed.
So why don’t the children run? Burst into tears? Hide? That is the peculiar psychology—a kind of learned helplessness—that Never Let Me Go explores. But it’s not just cloned children, the film argues, who dutifully follow a preordained course—we all do.
Our guide into this cloistered and morbid world is the sweet, sensible, and strong-willed Kathy, played as a child by Isobel Meikle-Small and as a young adult by Carey Mulligan. Kathy is best friends with the pretty, but petulant Ruth (Ella Purnell and later Keira Knightley) and pines away for the sensitive and temperamental Tommy (Charlie Rowe and Andrew Garfield). Ruth is just bold enough to go after Tommy herself—and he is just pliant enough to receive her, despite his feelings for Kathy.
When they get older—now living in a kind of off-campus housing—the trio hear a rumor that, if a couple can prove they are in love, they might get a deferral, some more time to live before the donations begin. This deferral, and its affect on the love triangle, becomes the focal point of the second half of the film.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Keira Knightley breaks your heart as Ruth, an insecure brat who never gets to fully atone for the folly of her youth. As for Mulligan and Garfield, they validate their current It Girl and It Boy status (they’re suddenly everywhere) by creating a kind of intimacy that is almost painful to watch. Having never fully acclimated to the real world, they cling to each other, like fretful children.
It’s clear that director Mark Romanek was looking to create a world that is both familiar and unsettling (“uncanny,” in the Freudian sense). He succeeds—perhaps too well. Never Let Me Go has an admirable restraint, but its pace, particularly in the beginning, is nearly soporific. This is partly because the characters are so maddeningly passive about their own lives. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, we grow to care about them—and the film becomes increasingly urgent as the reality of their gruesome fate sets in. Never Let me Go is an elegant horror film with a Merchant-Ivory pedigree—but it’s a horror film all the same.