You’d think that most films trying to tell the story of the spectre of widespread human cloning for organs might feel like horror films, or at least like science fiction. The technology and the desire seem to be there: the will, so far, is not. But Mike Romanek’s film, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly-acclaimed novel (adapted by Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later), presents this story as a reluctant, cautionary pastoral, as if it’s already a shadowy facet of society, or about to be; in England, at least.
The film is sparsely narrated by Cathy H. (the superb Carey Mulligan, Oscar nominee for An Education). As the film begins, Cathy tells us she is a “carer” whose time is running out. She stands by a hospital bed, looking down at Tommy (Andrew Garfield, seen most recently in The Social Network), a childhood friend who is on his third ”donation” and about to “complete.” The special lexicon used in this cowardly new world is subtle and innocuous, but the implications of it are horrific.
But before we go any deeper into the story’s present horrors, Cathy takes us back in time, to when she, Tommy and friend Ruth (played as a teenager and adult by Keira Knightley) were enrolled in Hailsham (the title of the film’s first chapter), a school in a country setting that looks for all intents and purposes like any other English school for children without parents. It’s grey granite, square and somewhat imposing: a cross between Jane Eyre’s orphanage and Hogwarts, perhaps. Set amid bucolic rolling hills and meadows, all feels normal here. The children are happy and healthy, and are told by their head mistress (Charlotte Rampling) that they are special and must take care of themselves. One day while playing outdoors, Tommy, an emotional and occasionally anti-social youth, is afraid to retrieve the ball when it bounces beyond the gates. A new teacher, Miss Lucy (played by Oscar winner and Mike Leigh veteran Sally Hawkins) asks Cathy and Ruth why Tommy wouldn’t get the ball, and Ruth relates a story that children who have ventured off the grounds have been found in the woods, with their hands and feet cut off. A few days later, Miss Lucy addresses the children during an assembly at which no other adults are present. She tells the children that they’re being raised for one purpose only, and their lives will not be like other young people’s. Shortly after they reach age 18, they will begin to undergo operations to harvest their major organs. The children, barely twelve years old, receive this news quietly. A few days later, Miss Lucy has departed.
The film’s second chapter is entitled “The Cottages,” where Cathy, Ruth and Tommy are sent to live at age 17 in the early 1980s. Other young donors from other schools live there, and one young couple tells stories of the “outside” where the three Hailsham students have never been. One day they visit a neighboring town and, unable to figure out what to order from a menu, they all order the exact same thing. The young couple says they’ve heard about “deferrals,” where young donors in love may be granted a few extra years together before they begin donations. Shortly after it’s clear Ruth and Tommy are sleeping together. Cathy is dismayed, her secret feelings for Tommy unexpressed but obvious to everyone. Shortly after, she opts to begin training to become a “carer,” or a person who acts as a personal caregiver to a donor through the duration of their “donations.”
What follows is sad, unspeakably horrifying, and eerily plausible. The donor program is apparently widespread throughout England, and accepted by everyone. There is no real explanation for why the young people don’t simply try to escape, although they appear to have electronic identification chips embedded in their wrists. One interesting choice the film makes it to de-emphasize the contemporary controversy over surveillance: in today’s England, these young people would find it hard going to elude the many cameras, hidden and otherwise, that now exist throughout the nation.
What makes this film so haunting is not simply its frightening take on our near future (treating as if it’s the recent past): it’s also in the film’s gorgeous photography and dreamy music. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Rudo y Cursi, Lars and the Real Girl, Capote) shows us an England steeped in idyllic nostalgia, its soft landscapes and misty lighting seemingly too gentle for such cruel practices. Rachel Portman’s score is also wonderfully effective: never intrusive, but moving and appropriately dark.
The cast is letter-perfect, particularly Miss Mulligan as Cathy, who has little to say but whose gamine face is a miracle of subtle expression. Andrew Garfield is stunning as Tommy, a docile but angry young man whose eyes become increasingly shadowed with betrayal and disappointment. Garfield is a versatile young actor who gets better every time I see him. Keira Knightley is also very fine, showing us Ruth’s complex motivations through the expressions of a girl whose powers of manipulation came from a world too small to contain her. She’s more passionate than Cathy and Tommy combined, but weaker-willed than either, beaten down by the inescapable awareness of a life that will end before she’s really lived it. If the film has a metaphor accessible to those of us who can’t imagine state-sanctioned compulsory organ donation, that may be it: life is short, and nearly always ends before we’re ready.
NEVER LET ME GO (2010). Directed by Mark Romanek. Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkin, Kate Bowes Renna, Hannah Sharp, Christina Carrafiell