Obviously, a film doesn't need to be pleasant to be good, but it's questionable whether Never Let Me Go rises to that level. While I can't say I enjoyed myself while I watched it, it's a film that haunted me for several days, which is a commendable trait in today's climate of disposable culture. Perhaps the problem is that it strives to be a masterpiece but doesn't succeed.
The movie, like the book it's based on, is set in the '70s and '80s in a British alternate reality. Disease, you see, has been licked. Life expectancy runs well past the century mark. But these lingering life spans need to be fueled, and we learn what those ramifications mean at Hailsham, a picturesque country school full of children such as Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Ruth (Ella Purnell) and Tommy (Charlie Rowe). We the audience know something's off. The children must wave their wrists in front of a console whenever they enter or exit each building. They never leave the school grounds, and the delivery men on the premises can't quite force themselves to look at the children when they come and go.
The soon-to-be-dismissed Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) can't take it anymore and explains to the children that they're clones, created specifically to provide organs for an aging population. It's a devastating moment, but it isn't a spoiler, because we, the audience, already understood that something horrible awaited these children, if you choose to call them that.
Time passes, and the kids grow into exceedingly good-looking lambs. Ruth (now played by Keira Knightley) has snatched Tommy (Andrew Garfield) away from Kathy (Carey Mulligan), and as all three try to come to terms with their relationships with one another and the short future that awaits them, Kathy chooses to become a Carer—one who helps other donors deal with the process that will eventually lead them to what is known as Completion. The trio drifts apart but is reunited as their time grows short, trying to find a bit of love in what is a very bleak reality.
Before you ask—no, no one commandeers a submarine and heads to America. Never Let Me Go isn't Logan's Run or The Island, and it's no good wondering why the clones don't rebel or go on the lam. This isn't that story, and before you say to yourself that there's no way you'd go along with this situation, think about all of life's enormous injustices that you simply suck up. Your life is not an action movie, and even though they exist in a quasi-sci-fi art film, neither are the lives of the characters in Never Let Me Go.
Romanek nicely captures the scruffy, downtrodden, post-war England of the '70s and '80s, and all three young actors give moving performances.
Once you've seen this film— which opens Friday, Oct. 8, in Hillcrest, La Jolla and Del Mar—the question to ask yourself is not whether you'd participate in a society such as this, because in some ways you already do. We cluster other people together based upon where they come from and what their lives are worth, doing our very best not to put faces and personalities to groups we find less desirable than our own kind. Who would you sacrifice to prolong the lives of your parents? Your spouse? Your children?
Romanek never comes right out and asks that question, and perhaps he should have, because we're left with an examination of dehumanization that's very clinical and sterile, despite its emotional potential. The hope is that you'll become a Carer for Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. But the question is whether or not you will actually care.