Synopsis: Academy Award Nominees Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley, co-star with talented newcomer Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) in this poignant and powerful film. Kathy (Mulligan), Ruth (Knightley) and Tommy (Garfield) are best friends who grow up together at an English boarding school with a chilling secret. When they learn the shocking truth – that they are genetically engineered clones raised to be organ donors – they embrace their fleeting chance to live and love. Based on the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day), Never Let Me Go is an intriguing exploration of hope and humanity.
Never Let Me Go 8.25
eyelights: the concept. the themes. the cast. the score.
eyesores: Young Tommy.
“It had never occurred to me that our lives, which had been so closely interwoven, could unravel with such speed. If I’d known, maybe I’d have kept tighter hold of them and not let unseen tides pull us apart.”
‘Never Let Me Go’ is a 2010 science fiction drama based on the eponymous novel by award-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Set in a dystopic past, it tells the story of a lifetime friendship and love triangle between school friends Kathy, Tommy and Ruth.
Told from Kathy’s perspective, and narrated by her, it introduces us to a world that was radically changed by medical science in 1952; by 1967 life expectancy had now reached 100 years of age. But there is something very unsettling in the shadows.
The picture takes us to three different points in time in the lives of our protagonists: 1978, at an exclusive school in the British countryside; 1985, at The Cottages, a farm house where the characters live; and 1994, when their fate is finally revealed.
When it first came out, I had overheard a few times that ‘Never Let Me Go’ was worth seeing. But it wasn’t until a close friend of mine gave me the DVD for my 2013 birthday that I decided to make a point of it (it took me a couple of years, but still…).
It was an unforgettable experience. Kate’s story was both sad and inspiring at once. And thought-provoking. And deeply moving. The setting was a bit depressing, however, as it paints a portrait of humanity that isn’t exactly noble or even redeemable.
I just wish that I hadn’t known the setting ahead of time.
Thankfully, unlike the book, the film version of ‘Never Let Me Go’ lays its cards out on the table by the quarter mark of the picture, so its secret wasn’t entirely spoiled. But I was waiting for it – something I do not wish on anyone seeing this for the first time.
And, for this reason, I will advise that people who have not read the book or heard about this movie just get a copy and watch it. It may or may not appeal, but it will certainly stay with you, provoke you in some fashion – as good art should. Check it out.
But do not continue with the rest of this blurb – for there be spoilers.
‘Never Let Me Go’ did exactly what its title suggested: it grabbed hold of me from the onset and never let go. While I was left unmoved by much of it, it got me to ponder much of what it proposes and reflect upon the values that it wishes to impart.
Having said this, ‘Never Let Me Go’ hinges on two things: performances and setting.
The picture’s centre is Kathy. And, although almost everyone is uniformly excellent here, the filmmakers thankfully got two terrific actresses (Carey Mulligan and Isobel Meikle-Small) to incarnate her older and younger self; both are equally superb in the part.
In fact, from the onset I found Meikle-Small better than her peers – in particular, she overshadowed the young Tommy, who was merely adequate. I also found that she was the perfect choice, in that you could easily imagine her as the younger Mulligan.
Carey Mulligan, whom everyone went gaga for in ‘An Education’, has thus far left me indifferent: I’ve only seen two movies of hers, ‘Public Enemies’ and ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’, and I don’t even remember her being in them. Not so here.
What makes her so good in ‘Never Let Me Go’ is how expressive she is without saying anything. The character is frequently deep in reflection and remains silent much of the picture (she is aided by a voice-over narration from time to time, mind you).
But you feel it.
Thankfully, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley are more capable than their younger doppelgängers, so they were able to hold their own next to her. Both were quite good and the three made for a credible set of friends. Mulligan, however, was the anchor.
The next most important part of the picture is the setting. Coming-of-age stories featuring close-knit friends are a dime a dozen, and there are plenty of very good ones. To distinguish itself, ‘Never Let Me Go’ throws us into a very complex situation indeed.
And an utterly unforgettable one.
Firstly, I love that it’s a science fiction that takes place in the past. What makes it sci-fi is the fictional science at the heart of it – not the gadgets, being set in the future, featuring a bunch of robot, or laser beam battles. I love that it’s a discrete form of sci-fi.
It’s also a science fiction picture in the best tradition of sci-fi: by tackling difficult subjects in a more palatable context (i.e. one that is familiar but not quite our own), the audience is somewhat removed and can feel more capable of discussing the issues at hand.
‘Never Let Me Go’ tackles three significant themes: interpersonal relationships, mortality and human dignity.
- The first comes as no shocker. With a love triangle we know what to expect. However, it’s the way that it’s approached that makes ‘Never Let Me Go’ special. It shows Kathy’s sensitive side being Tommy’s saving grace, even as Ruth steals him from her.
Combined with the theme of mortality, it brings to the fore the importance and fragility of our relationships. The picture reminds us that we need to cherish them while we can, lest they are wrenched from us – especially since mortality is inevitable for all of us.
- For these characters, their completion (a sanitized term for “death”) is more immediate; they know that they will not live to see 100 years of age. They will, in fact, be very lucky to see their thirties. The brevity of their relationships makes them even more precious.
It sounds tragic, but which is worse? Knowing with some certainty when one’s time is near? Or not knowing? Which is more freeing? Which allows us to be more fully involved? Surely, one could argue that having little time forces one to focus on what’s more important.
That is echoed by Kathy who tells us at one point that she wishes that she had given more meaning to her friendships with Tommy and Ruth, hadn’t let them slip away. She later reflects that she is glad to have had the chance of knowing Tommy, even for a short while.
It doesn’t change the fact that it’s heartbreaking to know that she spent most of her life watching the man she loves from afar, and then having him taken from her just as she gets her chance. But it does lend perspective on something we will all face someday.
- The third theme, human dignity, is the hardest part of the picture to digest. Bred as organ donors, these young people are forced to live a very limited life experience: after having reached adulthood, their bodies are progressively plundered for healthy body parts!
The notion that the human race could grow clones and use them to extend life is horrifying. It’s actually one step worse than being born and bred into slavery, because not only do they have no true freedom, they also don’t have mastery of their own bodies.
This brings into question the limits that humanity would go to in order to avoid death. Would we make such an affront to human dignity? Would we reduce people to being chattel that we can pick apart at will? Could that ever become acceptable?
Given how selfish we can be, I wouldn’t be surprised; we already do this to other beings on this planet. And sexual slavery, although it doesn’t guarantee completion, is certainly more degrading. So who says that we wouldn’t do something as ghastly as this?
It’s a terrible notion, but it’s not unfathomable; we so easily dehumanize and lose perspective.
And yet these people are raised in the knowledge that this is their ultimate purpose, that this is why they exist and that the fulfilment of this purpose is tantamount. Kathy is actually at peace with this notion (although Tommy is defiant and Ruth is resigned).
It made me wonder why none of them ran for the hills. Were they conditioned to be servile? Or were they dissuaded by various means such as threats and coercion (ex: although they were allowed to get around, their movements were monitored)?
Is any of this acceptable?
By extension, is euthanasia acceptable? Similarly, is the reverse (forcing someone to remain alive), acceptable? Who decides? What is considered dignified for a human being? And why are we incapable of discussing these issues without them being so loaded?
All of the above are extremely challenging questions, and this is why I love this movie. It presents its subjects in such a way that it is not offensive – the hallmark of great science fiction. And art. Granted, I expected this, but I like that these questions were posed.
The only problem is that, because of this, I watched the film with a certain emotional detachment, approaching it more cerebrally than if I had not known what to expect right from the onset. With its surprises intact, it would have elicited a stronger reaction.
Or any, really.
The one place when ‘Never Let Me Go’ did move me, of all things, was at the end, when Tommy’s dreams of getting a temporary deferral are dashed: he got out of the car and raged at the heavens. Breaking apart at the seams, Kathy had to come and hold him.
I lost it. Big time.
I recalled those moments of crumbling apart when there’s someone there to keep the pieces together, to hold you through the torrent of pain. In that vulnerability lies one of the most intimate moments one can share with another person.
And yet many don’t have that support. Exactly how can any of us live without it? How do we pull through those moments without someone to wrap their arms around us? To soothe us? To balm us? How? Well, some of us simply have to. Such is life.
This thought very much took the wind out of me.
But it didn’t depress me, even though the film’s subject matter is grim and could affect some. Supported by a gorgeously evocative score by Rachel Portman, if anything, the picture inspired a desire for deep, rich connections with the people in my life.
‘Never Let Me Go’ is an important film: it reminds us of our mortality and of the meaning that we give to our lives. But it also warns us about the value we assign to other people’s lives, both to those close to us and to the faceless strangers passing through.
It warns us to never close our hearts.
Date of viewing: March 2, 2015