A sensitively played and beautifully shot adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker nominated 2005 novel, ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a harrowing and deeply affecting film. Set in the recent past of an alternative history Britain of appalling human rights violations and truly ghastly euphemisms, the story follows the childhoods and short lives of three ‘donors’, children cloned to provide organs for transplant surgery. Such ‘donors’ are not considered fully human by the society that owned and created them and consequently have, effectively, no rights at all.
Director Mark Romanenk, who made the remarkable ‘One Hour Photo’, creates stark, beautiful, simple visuals that offer a cinematic equivalent of Ishiguro’s prose. He also draws extraordinary performances out of his cast. That’s not just three headlining stars of Carey Mulligan (Cathy), Keira Knightley (Ruth) and Andrew Garfield (Tommy) but also the child actors who play the same characters in the first third of the film. Isobel Meikle-Small and Charlie Rowe are splendid as young Cathy and Tommy respectively, but Ella Purnell, who portrays the younger Ruth, gives probably the most remarkable performance by a child actor in film since since Anna Paquin’s Oscar winning turn in ‘The Piano’.
Screenwriter Alex Garland clearly sees parallels between the treatment of the ‘donors’ and both the vivisection of animals and the treatment of sweat shop workers and these are pursued thoughtfully and without sentimentality or overt hectoring of the audience. Some overly literal-minded viewers might question how British society could have evolved into the one we see in this film in such a short period of time. It should be reasonably clear to anyone with any interest in international affairs that populations are frighteningly capable of justifying and/or ignoring atrocities if they perceive the results of them to be ultimately in their own interests.
The LFF’s own publicity for this film tries to reject the idea that the film is science fiction, as though it were embarrassed by the notion that it might be. While I have enormous sympathy with the notion that quality transcends genre, if your film is set in a parallel universe and its three protagonists are clones, then it’s ridiculous to pretend that there’s not an SF element to it (and besides, any film that casts Carey Mulligan as the dowdy one could never be accused of shying away from the counterfactual).
This reluctance may stem from a desire to not disappoint some audiences as much as putting others off. ’Never Let Me Go’ doesn’t look like a stereotypical science fiction movie. There are no spaceships. No advanced technology. No futuristic costumes. People wear chunky knit wear and cook on tatty gas hobs. The world it takes place in seems technologically and culturally behind our own in everything except medicine. The most impressive pieces of machinery on display are Bedford vans. The implication, perhaps, is that the greater lifespans afforded by the ability to harvest ‘donors’ has held the world back, as older generations hold onto to power and influence longer due to their continuing longevity. The film’s 1990s looks more like a permanently extended late 1950s than it does the real world decade of Britpop and glowsticks.
The picture’s topic, ultimately, is the crushing inevitability of human mortality. The terrible situation the ‘donors’ are in simply brings something universal into sharper focus and it does so to absolutely devastating effect. Never sentimental but never cold, ‘Never Let Me Go’ is enthralling and utterly haunting. Go see.