Of course, Never Let Me Go works—like all smart, insightful films do—on many levels. The other potent one here is as metaphor for our learning about, defiance of and eventual acceptance of our own mortality. We start out, if we’re lucky, as carefree and joyous as the children of Halesham, a remote English boarding school where the students are bright, attractive and prone to all the usual childhood complaints, from fighting when they shouldn’t and falling into heartbreaking romances at ever-so-tender ages. When new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) reveals that they are being raised to, one day not too far in the future, make “donations” to ensure the long lives of others, it barely registers with the children; it has no bearing on their lives at the moment. What does register? Young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), who is secretly in love with Tommy (Charlie Rowe), sees her best friend Ruth (Ella Purnell) holding Tommy’s hand, and is devastated by this. That’s what’s real to them.
Moments like this one recur throughout the film. Three people caught up in a love triangle, one that gets ruder and nastier as they grown up, have more than enough to cope with there, never mind whatever the larger world expects of them. That’s simply always there, the looming prospect of their “donations,” a thing as ordinary as eating breakfast in the morning. It’s just what you do.
Never Let Me Go, as directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), is so gorgeously delicate and lovely a film that it’s almost impossible to convey how (appropriately) horrific it is. As young adults, the three—now played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, all of them proving they are among the very best young actors working today—decide to investigate the rumor that if a couple is truly in love, they might be given a waiver to live together for a few extra years before beginning their donations. At least as much fervor and passion is thrown into this investigation as goes into the lovemaking, and through it all we can only watch, appalled and mystified, that no one—no one—thinks to question the rightness of their assigned deaths, or plots to run away and escape their fates. Their enormous blind spot is downright astonishing, absolutely tragic, from our perspective.
Of course, there may not be any escape. As subtle as the rest of the film are the hints we gather from what’s going on in the background. Though the film takes place over the course of about 15 years, from 1978 to 1994, this is not the world as we knew it then. Even the 1990s look drab and shabby, as if little has changed for decades—as indeed it might not, if life expectancy all over the planet is already over 100 in 1978. We can assume the world is full of elderly people less adventurous and more set in their ways. The world has stagnated. And no one seems to notice that, either.
Chilling, too, is the depressing plausibility of this donor system, which comes complete with euphemisms, paperwork and bureaucracy. It’s all so awfully ordinary, and it’s enough to make us wonder—or at least it should—what we do as a society, in the here and now, that we barely even notice that alternate versions of ourselves would find abhorrent.
NEVER LET ME GO
Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield