Science fiction in the vein of Never Let Me Go is a rare thing – not showy or obvious, no aliens or space travel, no visible scientific apparatus, nothing really even explicitly stated. Yet the characters’ lives are utterly defined and guided by science fiction elements, and the kind of ethical questions implicitly explored are those of classic science fiction going back to Asimov and Wells, here told with a poignant humanism and thoughtfulness rarely found on the screen today. The way understanding of the characters’ situation gradually dawns as the story unfolds is part of the pleasure of it, so I’m going to try not to spoil it as much as possible. (Even though it’s been long enough now since release that if you’ve remained unspoiled, you’re kind of amazing and you should definitely go into this film knowing as little as possible – not because it depends on not knowing what’s going on, but because it just gives it that much more oomph and poignancy if you learn gradually along with the film.)
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up together at what seems to be an upscale boarding school in rural England, going through the joys and squabbles that any children do, but there are signs that things may not all be as they seem. We learn more about who these children are and what the school is as the story unfolds, but we remain firmly focused on their relationship with each other, especially as Ruth and Tommy begin dating, leaving Kathy a patient but longing third wheel. This is a story primarily concerned with relationships, but relationships that are predicated on and intensified by these individuals’ particular status in society.
The film succeeds on nearly every level and doesn’t fall victim to the stifling over-faithfulness to it source material that I feared it might – Kasuo Ishiguro’s novel is a difficult one to adapt, and there is a lot of streamlining here, especially in straightening out Ishiguro’s meandering timeline and eliding a lot of the portions of the story not essential to the central relationship among the three children. This means there is much less time spent on Ruth as a child, which is perhaps the film’s one weak point. Keira Knightley does a fine job as Ruth, capturing her winning vivacity, occasional vindictiveness, and ultimate frailty well, but the character doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as she is in the book. Carey Mulligan adds another great performance onto her CV, portraying the mousy but stronger-than-she-seems Kathy with great nuance and sympathy. And upcoming Spider-Man Andrew Garfield holds his own against the two women as the troubled Tommy. Sure, there’s stuff in the book that was great and is left out here, but the choices made are solid and make for a strong and coherent film.
Much like the novel, the film takes a matter-of-fact yet thought-provoking perspective on the central underlying fact that governs the character’s lives – never didactic nor preachy, but encouraging you to construct the rest of society (which exists as a sort of negative space against which our characters appear in sharp relief) and the ethical concerns that the film brings up but doesn’t answer. I love this way of approaching difficult questions, and I actually really appreciated Kathy H’s final few lines of dialogue, heartbreaking in their humanist acceptance of things which are both unacceptable and, within the context of the story, inevitable. The balance in the film, as in the book, is tipped well toward people rather than ideas, but that’s as it should be for this story, and it’s through the people that the ideas come into focus. It may be a little safe and comfortable for people who like their science fiction edgy and provocative, but that’s not what Never Let Me Go is, and what it does it does superbly.
Oh, and also – kudos to the casting director on finding a DEAD RINGER for Carey Mulligan to play young Kathy. And also, also, to Rachel Portman for her pitch-perfect score.