The film is set in a dystopian vision of present-day England, where human cloning has been practiced since the 1950s and the doomed doubles are harvested for limbs and vital organs. Even more chillingly, clones are raised in sequestered boarding schools where they are indoctrinated with the belief that their short life expectancy and eventual submission to “completion centers,” where they will be slowly butchered, is normal.
Though this horrific fate is never spoken of in such blunt terms, the promise of it hangs over the moors and city like a shroud, its greater implications known only to the audience.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), whom we first meet in their youth, are no exceptions to this institutional genocide, but their school, a creaky country manor called Hailsham, whispers unspoken possibilities. Full of doting instructors such as Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), whose sharp tongue masks tangible empathy, the students are instructed to produce work for an art gallery whose purpose remains unclear to the young artists until the end of their lives.
As the film jumps through the decades at an unfortunately impatient pace to the protagonists’ grim ends, friendships and relationships are formed and broken. While Tommy and Ruth loudly have sex upstairs, we are treated to Kathy’s shattered face, paralyzed with a desire that has not even seemed to be a possibility until this moment.
There are images and scenes of startling power and beauty to be found in Never Let Me Go, many of which one would imagine Ishiguro himself would be moved by. Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland have managed to preserve the discord between the complicit audience and the protagonists marching toward their fate, with the blindfold coming loose only near the end.
When the audience finally sees what happens to one of these poor souls in gruesome detail, the movie presents one of the few scenes in recent memory that has so grimly depicted the dehumanization of an entire society.
And yet, for all of the film’s shattering bursts of anguish, it is shockingly unconfident. Romanek’s background in music videos might explain why the film is punctuated with gratuitous overtures by composer Rachel Portman, which ruin moments that would have been better left in contemplative, uncomfortable silence. Every time the film slows down and begins to reach as far into the rafters of the human spirit as the works of Resnais or Malick, Romanek scores and cuts as though attached to a defibrillator.
It is especially sad to see the potential for a great film go to waste away when one considers the talents of Mulligan and Garfield, both of whom give fearless, stirring performances. Garfield, a newcomer who proved himself in recent works like Boy A and Red Riding: 1975 is especially notable. Though Mulligan’s Kathy remains our eyepiece to Ishiguro and Romanek’s England, it is Garfield’s journey from complacency to love to anger that captures our sympathies in a quiet, understated performance that unsettles and moves deeply. When he finally explodes with despair, Romanek betrays his actor’s display with more strings from Portman.
Indeed, the ultimate tragedy of Never Let Me Go is not the harvesting of life but the loss of a timeless picture.
Perhaps Romanek was unnerved by what he has captured and whether audiences could take it. Here an image as simple as a modernist apartment complex terrifies in its allusion to man’s advancement in technology, an ascension that has proved itself both decadent and murderous. That alone constitutes a competent, fearless picture, which remains just as distant here as a lifetime of love and companionship.