Walking out of Never Let Me Go, I felt as if I had experienced a death. This isn’t to suggest that the film pushed me away. If anything, I was deeply drawn in, entirely taken by the sheer power it had on me emotionally. I’m fairly certain I wasn’t the only one; I sensed solemnity in the audience I sat with, the profound feelings of shock, loss, grief, anger, and helplessness. The film projects all that, as if saying, “It’s not fair. It shouldn’t have to be this way.” At the same time, the film also projects profound feelings of resignation, as if saying, “Life isn’t fair, and it doesn’t matter what should or shouldn’t be – that’s just the way it is.” Perhaps so, but that doesn’t make it any easier. This movie haunted me, and I don’t mean that I was frightened or repulsed; its themes, its characters, and its plot have a lasting effect, the ability to move us in the most personal of ways.
Adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (best known for The Remains of the Day), Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate universe, where medical science achieved what was thought to be impossible; in 1952, all previously incurable diseases could be cured, allowing for the average life expectancy to increase to over 100 years by 1967. But how did such a thing happen? The opening title card is intentionally vague on the specifics – all it says is that it was the result of a “medical breakthrough.” With that in mind, we plunge into the story proper, which begins in 1978 at Hailsham, a charming-looking but isolated British boarding school surrounded by miles of open fields. The children and teenagers who attend know absolutely nothing of the outside world. They wouldn’t dream of leaving; they’ve all heard horror stories about those who have crossed over the fence.
They’ve also heard repeatedly from headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) that they’re all special. What exactly does this mean? We gradually come to understand, although hints are dropped all throughout the opening section. Consider the fact that every student wears a special bracelet, one they must pass over a mechanical device whenever they reenter the school building. Also consider that every student has no last name other than an initial. And then consider a lecture given by the ever observant Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), one in which she sorrowfully explains to the students that, while most children can grow up and be anything they want, they will never be anything; their paths have already been chosen for them. Do the students understand this? They may hear the words, but I imagine it would be difficult for them to fully grasp their meaning, especially when the only world they’ve ever known has been the grounds of a boarding school.
Emphasis is placed on artistic achievement, specifically poetry, drama, music, and – most importantly – drawing and painting. The best pieces are chosen by an elusive figure known as Madame to be displayed a section of the school called The Gallery. They’re encouraged to participate in sports and eat a healthy diet. They earn colored tokens, each having monetary value; every so often, they can use their tokens to buy assorted knick knacks, all delivered to Hailsham via truck.
Three students are introduced: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. As adolescents (played by Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell, and Charlie Rowe respectively), they dutifully engage in strict regiment, although they also develop as individuals, forming a close friendship in spite of the cliques students are often separated by. Kathy is observant and calm. Ruth is bold and opinionated. Tommy is a shy boy who isn’t as creatively inclined and is picked on by other boys. As adults in 1985 (played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield respectively), tensions rise when they’re sent to a residential community that grants them more exposure to the outside world; not only do they not know how to cope in such a place (they’re incapable, for example, of deciding for themselves what to order in a restaurant), they’re also at odds over their needs and desires, Tommy’s physical attraction to Ruth seemingly upstaged by his emotional attraction to Kathy.
The film ends in 1994, at which point Kathy has become a Carer and has been separated from Ruth and Tommy for years. I dare not reveal what a Carer is, nor should I say anything more about Ruth and Tommy, for their fates are too attached to the secret the story revolves around. It’s revealed not as a surprise twist but rather as a disturbingly slow unfolding of events, all of which lead to a devastating conclusion. This in itself very easily could have been weepy and melodramatic, but director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland instead opted to handle it with a fascinating sense of acceptance – sad, but inescapable, like death. Therein lies the tragedy of Never Let Me Go; it’s about the certainty of one’s existence, the inability to alter the outcome, the painful moments of letting illusions go and facing reality.