I’ve come to realize recently that there’s something more chilling, more eerie than a fictional dystopic world: a fictional dystopic world in which no one understands they’re living in a dystopia. I mean, in what is perhaps the granddaddy of all dystopic tales, to one to which we now assign our greatest cultural anxieties and from which we now draw our worst-case scenarios — 1984, of course — our hero Winston Smith knows that something is wrong with his world, and he remains our hero because he resists what’s wrong… because he shares our notion of what’s wrong in the first place.
But the extraordinarily moving and deeply unsettling Never Let Me Go — based on the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — is a different sort of creature, coming at its horrors gently, almost idyllically, in such a way that allows us to instantly see everything that has gone awry in this alternate world without ever letting its characters do the same. This is science fiction of a keen but subtle sort, one that plays with the sciences of sociology and ethnology… one that concludes, ever so soothingly, that culture is brainwashing, and that children can be raised up to be healthy, happy, and accepting of almost anything, even their own inevitable deaths.
Of course, Never Let Me Go works, as 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 School, 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: An Education, Happy-Go-Lucky) reveals to one class 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. (The word cloning is never used, and indeed it seems as if the technology hovering in the background of this film must be more complicated than “merely” raising clones to contribute vital organs to their progenitors. But we have known this truth about their lives from the opening moments of the film, which layers all sorts of horror under the sun-dappled contentment director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) portrays on the surface.) 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.
It’s moments like this one — the script is by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Beach) — that 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 from 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 is so gorgeously delicate and lovely a film that it’s almost impossible to convey how (appropriately) horrific it is. The children are so sheltered from the outside world at Halesham that a special event they await with eager excitement turns out to be something so mundane and even shoddy to our eyes that it’s pitiful… all the more so when their anticipation is exceeded only by their delight on the day. As young adults, and living in a sort of group home in the countryside with other donors like them, the three — now played by, as Kathy, Carey Mulligan (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Brothers); as Tommy, Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus); and as Ruth, Keira Knightley (The Duchess, Silk); all of them prove 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, that this is how the whole world is. 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. Though we don’t see much beyond the lives of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, we can speculate that youth truly is being wasted on the young… and then snuffed out. We can assume the world is full of elderly — if healthy — 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, but comes complete with euphemisms — the donors are said to reach “completion” when they die, most after their third donations — with 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.