The first thing to be said in any consideration of Never Let Me Go—the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro or the spellbinding new movie that’s been made of it—is this: spoiler alert. Director Mark Romanek’s film is so true to the book in both its chilling plot particulars and its obliquely eerie tone that there’s no way to discuss it without revealing key elements that should really be absorbed firsthand. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please bookmark this review and go see the movie. The review will patiently await your return.
The time is an alternate version of the 1980s and ’90s. Medical breakthroughs have extended average human life expectancy to 100 years—unfortunately without extending the durability of the human body. The implications of this situation slowly become clear at Hailsham, a peculiar boarding school in the misty English countryside. Here the students—who have no last names, and have been resident at this bleak institution for as long as they can remember—are instructed in a strangely vague way about the very special lives they’ve been chosen to lead. Upon graduation they will devote themselves to the making of “donations,” although some will spend a brief period as “carers,” ministering to fellow graduates as they proceed through their selfless careers.
The school’s odd curriculum is heavily oriented toward physical health and, most oddly, creative pursuits—poetry, pottery, painting—the artifacts of which are regularly collected for transport to a faraway “Gallery,” for purposes never (until the movie’s end) explained. The ambiguity of this system is strictly maintained by the school’s teachers—or “guardians,” as they’re called. Questioning it is not a part of the academic regimen.
The story focuses on three of the students, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played as young adults, with penetrating brilliance, by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley). Kathy, who narrates the tale, becomes a carer at first, while Tommy and Ruth proceed directly into making “donations.” By this point the nature of their fate has become horrifically clear: Hailsham’s students are human clones who’ve been created solely to supply vital organs—eyes, kidneys, whatever the market demands—to the long-aging populace in the world beyond the school’s confines. At regular intervals, the donors are brought into hospitals to be surgically relieved of one or another body part, then relocated to a recovery facility to recuperate until their next operation, after a few of which they inevitably “complete,” or die. In the beginning, it’s suggested, there was some moral unease about this program; but it quickly became so popular among the public that any ethical reservations soon withered.
Mark Romanek, who has directed only two previous features in a 30-year-career devoted largely to music videos, here emerges as an unexpected master of mood and pace, rigorously committed to the unique autumnal tone of Ishiguro’s novel. Never Let Me Go is a horror movie of a sort, but the horrors are not the kind that come leaping wetly off the screen; instead, they build up in your mind like a toxic silt. Thus, the movie’s two most astonishing scenes, both set in operating rooms, are unforgettable not for their gore or violence, but for the inhuman indifference of the hospitals’ doctors to the disposable patients they so coldly maim. As our own society slouches toward the brink of human cloning, this picture quietly raises the most profound questions about the meaning and worth of human life, and the collision of ethics and commercial imperatives with which we may very soon contend.