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Never Let Me Go

A Poignant, Resonant Romantic Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The words “poignant,” “moving,” and “heartrending,” among others, are the first words that come to mind in describing Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and Alex Garland’s (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, The Beach) adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s critically acclaimed, bestselling 2005 novel of the same title.

The novel, a meditation on the fragility of life and love and vice versa, made the shortlist for that year’s Man Booker Prize (the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize), the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a spot on Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” A film adaptation seemed inevitable.

Never Let Me Go opens in an alternate 1994 as Kathy (Carey Mulligan, more impressive here than she was in last year’s An Education), now in mid- to late-twenties reminisces about her experiences at Hailsham, the boarding school where she spent her first eighteen years. The headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), extols the students to keep their bodies healthy, free of contaminants and poisons (like cigarettes). Words like “donors,” “carers,” and “completion,” gradually take on a dark, ominous meaning.

Hailsham is special, an experiment involving Kathy and the other children, but the initial (and subsequent) focus of Never Let Me Go is on Kathy (played by Isobel Meikle-Small as a preteen/teen); Tommy (Charlie Rowe), an outcast at Hailsham for his introspection and temperament; and Kathy’s friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell). Kathy finds herself on the outside looking in when Ruth and Tommy develop a romantic relationship that stretches into their early twenties.

At eighteen, Kathy, Tommy (Andrew Garfield, equally impressive in an inward, introspective role), and Ruth (Keira Knightley, limited by screen time and an underwritten role) leave Hailsham for the Cottages, where they meet others and, for the first time, are allowed to venture into the outside world on their own.

A frustrated, moody Kathy, however, still pines for Tommy, while Ruth actively keeps them apart. Time, however, proves to be the real antagonist to Kathy and Tommy’s future together. Rumors of deferral, of postponing the fates planned for Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and others like them, give them hope, but only if they can prove their love for each other.

An initial title card hints at a world-changing scientific breakthrough in 1952. A second title card informs readers that the scientific discovery has led to a greatly expanded life span, but that’s all we learn until an anguished Hailsham teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), reveals the true purpose of the students. To say more would obviously spoil Never Let Me Go for moviegoers unfamiliar with the novel, but the premise, “science fiction without the science fiction tropes” (per Romanek in interviews) allowed Ishiguro to explore certain themes tied to mortality as well as ask ethical questions about science and progress that Romanek and Garland’s adaptation also explore and ask.

It’s to Romanek and Garland’s considerable credit that they hew close to Ishiguro’s oblique, elliptical approach to exploring Never Let Me Go’s alternate past and the characters’ inner lives. This approach allows moviegoers, like Ishiguro’s readers, to discover gradually over the course of the novel and film who Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (and the others) are, and what purpose they serve in a society that has overcome moral and ethical objections in the pursuit of a greater good. When, late in the film, Kathy and Tommy visit Miss Emily, she explains the purpose of Hailsham is, to paraphrase, the pursuit of an answer to a question no one wanted asked (for political and personal convenience).

Like Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go ultimately becomes all the more devastating because Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth only see their intended purpose, a purpose decided on before they were born, and not the possibility of escape, as the only option available to them. It’s a question American audiences will find troubling, perhaps because they might act similarly under these circumstances, but also because in identifying, sympathizing, and empathizing strongly with Kathy and the others, we see ourselves in them. That recognition, on its own, is what Ishiguro and Romanek and Garland intended as the answer to Miss Emily’s question.