The tragedy of Never Let Me Go, beyond the prescribed end of nearly every life in the film, is that this revelation doesn’t make the kids break out in a rendition of We Don’t Need No Education and stage a revolt. Nothing changes at all, for them or for the largely unseen populace in need of a new liver or thyroid or whatever. The characters advance to adulthood unchanged. Kathy demonstrates a talent for nursing and is assigned to be a Carer for her fellow organ farms, a task that makes her wallow in suffering but pushes off her ‘donation’ date into the future. Tommy and Ruth (Keira Knightley) strike up a romance, though they all know that Kathy’s a better fit for him. The romantic entanglements pass the time before the donations start. The viewer learns that the leads are somehow the lucky ones: most other schools don’t bother with even a rudimentary education. When donors find Hailsham alumni, they always ask if the rumors of this or that deferral are available to non-Hailsham students. This always comes as a surprise to Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, as they know of no such things, though even they’re given to wild hopes. Never Let Me Go is a series of crestfallen faces leading into bitter resignation.
Sci-fi screenwriter extraordinaire Alex Garland adapts the script, and his talent for finding wrenching emotion in dry or high-concept environments is fully on display. He finds so many moments of meaning, whether invented or taken from Ishiguro’s book, that are exactly right for the characters and the world. The way the girls crowd a visiting judge of a Hailsham art contest, or the way adult Ruth hopelessly tries to appear worldlier than she is, or several other instances of well-observed behavior contribute to the feeling of a wholly constructed universe. Even the writerly visual metaphors, given life and beauty by Romanek, don’t seem bludgeoning, the prime example here being a ship grounded deep into a beach. A vehicle meant for one thing marooned out of its element provides plenty of thematic grist in an already-weighty film.
The main cast of Never Let Me Go all find themselves on a career upswing in 2010, and the film demonstrates why this is so. Knightley, the most famous at the time, takes loathsome actions but never appears loathsome herself. She and Garfield both are giving intense physical performances once the donations start, their young bodies covered in ugly scars and hobbled by missing pieces. Garfield co-starred in The Social Network a few weeks after Never Let Me Go’s release, and both roles have a sweet and trusting vulnerability that mixes beautifully with the crushing realization of betrayals. Mulligan has the subtlest tasks and doesn’t have the physical business to fall back on. Her Kathy is given to many of the aforementioned grace notes, like the short beats of composure loss after a patient in her care expires or a scene of her in dark silhouette that still communicates exactly what her face looks like through small gasps and changes in posture. This is a restrained film, with a couple of exceptions, and each actor demonstrate the burden of that restraint in their faces and their bodies.
Never Let Me Go’s major unspoken premise is evident in who’s missing. Non-donors have little screentime, and when they do, the donors pass by as ghosts. In the operating rooms, rough surgeries commence the second the anesthesia kicks in. Everyone has accepted this system, despite the victims of the system walking around amongst the beneficiaries. The enablers of a healthier and more comfortable populace are invisible, just as the miners who found the rare earths that are in this laptop or the assemblers of the clothes on my back. Never Let Me Go prods the viewer to think about what they would tolerate in exchange for several ticks of life expectancy, and makes them suspect that they already know the answer. A-