Woefully underrepresented in the current film conversation, I believe Never Let Me Go will only grow in stature over the next few years. I saw this mournful film (based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro) last week, yet still find it haunting me in a way that brought to mind one of my favorite movies of the last ten years, Children of Men (2006). That's curious because while Children of Men presents a dystopic future, Never Let Me Go gives us a utopic past, or at least an alternate past.
Initially, the film focuses on Hailsham, a countryside English boarding school far from the rest of society. Our entry point into this insular world is the school's newest teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins). More accessible to the young students than her colleagues, she learns of some of the superstitions which keep the children from escaping the grounds even for some childish misadventures, stories like the one about the girl who stepped outside of the gates, wasn't allowed back in, and died of starvation right at the front entrance. Before the sinister overtones give way to a gothic boarding school story on the order of The Beguiled, a horrific twist is revealed to Miss Lucy's class by the subversive teacher herself.
The students of Hailsham are all clones. Each is raised for the sole purpose of providing organs for humans leading a utopic existence in the oustide world. In the second act of the film, we get to know three of Miss Lucy's students now in their late teens, as they transition to a new, grimmer setting, the Cottages. Here, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), are forced to temper the volatile emotions of adolescence, young love, and the emergence of a new, adult world, with the pessimistic prospects which face them as "donors", the certainty they will reach "completion" after their second or third donation. Rumors of a "deferral" granted to donor couples who can prove their commitment to each other start circulating about while the trio works through a stormy love triangle.
Mark Romanek directs at least two of the young actors to fine performances considering the sketchy script. Dialogue is spare, but not to the film's detriment. If one ignores the problematic analogies (stem-cell research? I'm not sure. This is the first time I've ever thought a film could have used a bit more didacticism), Never Let Me Go is about the space between the words, actions, and moments of significance for these young people. It is not surprising that the donors—whose lifespan will top out, at best, at around thirty—would choose to spend their short lives taking long drives into the city, having meaningful conversations, or just hanging out by the beach under overcast skys, contemplative exercises which extend the moment, much like Romanek's small film seems to do. Knightley, unsurprisingly, fares the worst. Forced to downplay her natural beauty to play the decidedly less glamourous Ruth, the actress doesn't really pull it off in later scenes when the once vital donor she plays enters a steep decline as her second donation approaches. Mulligan, whose levelheaded Kathy narrates the tale is far more successful given that her character is more of an observer. She brings a dignity and grace to Kathy (who has grown to become a "carer" for the donors) which permeates the rest of the film, lifting the story above what could have been a simple exploration of one of the many narrow subplots in Blade Runner (1982): how long does a life have to be in order to consider it worthwhile?
It is Garfield's movie, though. I now look forward to his turn as Peter Parker in the new Spider-Man feature in a way I never did before. With his performance here he pulls an amazing hat trick, three of the best performances of 2010 including the ones in The Social Network, and Red Riding: 1974. As Tommy's ultimate fate becomes clear during the course of the film, the young actor's sustained note of emotional bewilderment gives way to a cathartic primal scream in the last act, one which encapsulates the rage and the defeat one feels when one truly realizes his/her own mortality. For many, this occurs when someone particularly close to us dies. But for some, including the characters in this film, this takes place after discovering they have a terminal condition.
Perhaps it is the overriding tone of resignation, which also pervades the majority of Children of Men, that puts me in the same frame of mind when watching Never Let Me Go. However, it is interesting to note that Children of Men's dystopic story (where humanity has literally died after children stop being born) ultimately ends on a note of optimism. Never Let Me Go proposes a history in which the outside world, us, is so tuned out to the world of donors that we rarely see any of their class, save for ones who deal with the donors on a professional basis. No, this utopia where life has been extended for its denizens has an underclass that is largely ignored, and appropriately, the film's final scene is a downbeat acquiescence to the status quo.