Even before seeing Never Let Me Go, divisiveness reared its head. I heard of walk outs and accolades, cries that the film was nowhere near the caliber of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel.
Surprisingly, despite generating such a sensational response, Never Let Me Go is a quiet, subtle, and shaded film. It is a poem of a film, and perhaps these are not the most poetic of times: We prefer action and movement, and this is the kind of film whose content builds in ellipses, in pauses, in all the things that are not said, but must be inferred.
Based on Ishiguro's revered novel, the film unfolds in a contemporary parallel universe not unlike our own, but vastly changed because of scientific advances made in the '50s and '60s that have allowed life to be prolonged. A nasty business has sprung up in the interim, in which human beings are factory farmed in the lovely, bucolic British boarding school Hailsham, their bodies kept pure and healthy for reasons the story slowly reveals. Without parents to guide them and just a cold institution supporting the system they live under, a kind of naive folklore emerges among these "donor" children. As they grow, a rumor spreads that they will be spared their eventual fate if they can find "certifiable" true love. It sounds like a corny notion, but the three young stars (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield) of Never Let Me Go bring it to life. They are painfully innocent, utterly sheltered, and have been given absolutely nothing to equip them for the real world. Aware of their mortality, the children cling to the hope of their own exceptionalism. Each year they offer up their art work for a gallery show juried by a mysterious Frenchwoman. The art becomes another folklore, evidence that if they are deemed worthy enough — in possession of a "soul" —they will be spared.
Never Let Me Go is, naturally, a meditation on mortality. We all know we face it, and yet part of what makes us human is denying our own end with every fiber of our being. In the same way, these three young people cling to the belief that if they love, they will survive. The three friends at the center of Mark Romanek's film (One Hour Photo) are bonded together by the romance and the tragedy of their existence at Hailsham. The institution clearly has importance and meaning for them; it's where they grew up, the ivy-covered secret gardens where they once played. But it's the most bittersweet of homes, one they can never return to, and with the darkest secret imaginable at its core. Kathy (Mulligan) forms a bond with Tommy (Garfield), who seems ostracized by the other boys for his strange, artistic ways. Over time they fall in love, until the triangle shifts and Tommy and Ruth (Knightley) become a pair.
Ishiguro and Romanek have tapped into something powerful in Never Let Me Go by connecting the young children who open the film and the young adults who close it; they cling to each other for security and comfort, and their essentially childlike nature never changes. Anyone with a child of their own, or who has spent significant time with one, knows how devastating their loss of innocence can be, whether in learning of the world's injustices, of other people's cruelty, or of their own mortality. This movie projects you into that experience of watching knowledge shatter innocence and the devastation that ensues as Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy contemplate their own fate. The trio is defined by their helplessness even into young adulthood. They remain idealistic and romantic, they read bedtime stories and open their hearts to each other, because they are alone in the world and don't want to think the worst of what lies ahead. Never Let Me Go is also a film about that intense time many of us remember from adolescence (or are experiencing now), that heady, edge-of-the-earth sense of discovery in the world, and using friends as the guides who lead you into knowledge.
In essence, Never Let Me Go is about life in all its poetry and heartbreak. Death hangs over the film; in fact, it saturates this unremittingly bleak affair. But the beauty is overwhelming too.