“Never Let Me Go” (2010). Mark Romanek, director. DNA Films/ Fox Searchlight, 103 minutes.
“Never Let Me Go” is based on the haunting, elegantly written novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). This unusual science fiction story is set in the mid-twentieth century, not in the future. The setting is horrifying only because it is not horrifying — it is presented as ordinary and normal. In this dystopian utopia, scientists have discovered a way to cure nearly all diseases, but only for certain humans. The film follows the story of a group of friends (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley) from boarding school through “completion,” a word, we learn, that means something very different from commencement.
These children are told that they are “special,” and they are encouraged to do artwork because “art says something about you. It reveals your soul.” They are provided food, clothing and shelter throughout their lives, so they do not need to study for careers. Instead, they spend much of their time as teens munching on snacks, staring at the TV screen, and engaging in meaningless sex. They are rather like cows, and that may be one of the subtle but intentional metaphors of the story. Is there much difference between harvesting spare parts from humans and harvesting pork chops from pigs? Although this connection is never made overtly, PETA members and those who oppose embryonic research must love this film.
The film is directed with excruciating restraint, reminiscent of the Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson roles in “Remains of the Day” (1993), which is also based on a novel by Ishiguro (1989). In the book this restraint works effectively, because the reader is able to enter the thoughts and feelings of Kathy H (Mulligan), who narrates the story. Like Cormac McCarthy’s sparely written The Road (2006), Never Let Me Go is a book that stays with the reader long after finishing the last page.
On film, however, this acquiescent restraint is less successful. The movie is slow, almost plodding, and even when the children are told, early in the film, about their fates, they barely react. It makes the case — unintentionally perhaps — that these “creatures” (as one teacher calls them) do not have souls. They do not rebel or use their minds to discover that they have certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness. Like beasts in the field, most of them simply accept their fate.
Kathy H (none of these children has a last name) is an exception. Compassionate, emotional, and caring, she is a living, breathing answer to a teacher’s question, “Do these creatures have souls?” In the book, her narration is filled with poetic language, answering this question with a resounding “yes!” “Carers and donors have accomplished so much,” she acknowledges, “but we aren’t machines.” The film, unfortunately, makes the opposite case, because most of the acting is dull and mechanical, especially the performance phoned in by Knightley, who may have been miffed at not getting the lead.
The mid-twentieth century setting and British boarding school uniforms create an eerie atmosphere of almost robotic complacency and acceptance of authority. These children never question the roles that have been thrust upon them, nor do they try to escape, although they do search for a deferral of their eventual fate. In this respect the story calls to mind Islamic training camps where children are taught to become soldiers and suicide bombers for the good of their community. Its main theme also acts as a metaphor for the way one class often cannibalizes another in a controlled society.
Other allusions abound, always subtle, always engaging. At one point the children excitedly greet the school’s handy man as he delivers small boxes of toys and treasures the children will be allowed to “buy” with the tokens they have earned for good behavior at the school. The toys are worn and used. Only later do we realize that they are the toys of school alumni who have “completed.” It is an eerie reminder of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Children are kept isolated within the boundaries of Hailsham School by false stories told to them about the outside, and when a new teacher tells them the truth about their fate, she is fired, reminiscent of Plato’s Cave. The story challenges our understanding of what is true, what is false, and how we can know the difference.
Despite its gruesome theme, “Never Let Me Go” is strangely lacking in suspense. Kathy’s emotion is real and sad, but we never fully enter her world. Perhaps someone who had not read the book would have found it more engaging, but the ladies sitting behind me were thoroughly confused at the ending. “Where were their parents?” one woman asked her friend. They expressed surprise when I explained to them the background of the children. Sadly, this is a case of a wonderful book hampered by poor screenplay adaptation, indifferent direction, and languid editing. The topic of the story is there, but as with the donors in its cast, the heart is missing. The rich language and metaphor, the deep thoughts and feelings, the intense longing don’t translate well to the screen. My recommendation: read the book instead.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.