You may have heard that the less you know about this one going in, the more you are likely to enjoy it by avoiding the poisoning of expectations. Simultaneously light as air and dripping with portent, Never Let Me Go is in a sense an existential piece. That is all I will say about this intriguing film, and that if you trust my judgment you will enjoy it.
The rest of the review is a discussion of the film itself, and you should bugger off until after you come to your own conclusions about it.
No really, stop reading, because, you know, spoilers and shit.
Never Let Me Go invites the audience to consider the point of being alive from the point of view of humans bred specifically for the purpose of providing organs and/or other tissue for their genetic matches. This film has been classified as science fiction, which misses the larger consideration it gives to the meaning of life and the value of having a soul. In the 1950s, there is a medical breakthrough that saves lives. This has always been a fallacy of medicine, in that no lives are saved, just prolonged. The miracle of medical care depicted here is not elaborated upon, as it is not only irrelevant to the story, but because this fallacy renders it moot. By 1967, the life expectancy passes 100 years. Refreshingly, this world actually considers the impact of longevity, in that there is a cost to bear for those living long lives that are not necessarily healthy. There is a society that can pay for this treatment, and providing those raw materials are the Donors. After this introduction, the film proper opens on a bucolic setting. Idyllic scenes of a boarding school of brick and polished wood, children scampering about, and moments that unfold at a leisurely pace.
We are introduced thoughtfully, and carefully, to this world sealed off. The sinister edges are revealed little by little as these children are of paramount importance only if healthy; there is no sign of education here, only art projects, games, and other ways to pass the time. Toys are brought to them, but they are all used. Some of the sharper ones discern the meaning in this, and the relative value of their lives begins to shrink. Finally, one of the new teachers opens up, informing her class that children do not have the chance to grow up – they only become adults briefly, then donate organs until they die. Some are horrified, but for the most part, this is taken with an unsettling calm. They are kept people from birth, are raised to believe in providing a service, and in exchange want for nothing. This is the story, or lack thereof. Very little happens in this film except the mantra above about growing older for a little while. The course of this plotless film is itself disorienting, and we are left without a goal, a character arc of any meaning, and certainly no crescendo.
What is left is a consideration of what it means to be human, and the value of one’s life. The narrator is one such Donor, Kathy, who later becomes a Carer (basically holding the hands of Donors until they are killed by the process). Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) grow up together at one of these projects; Kathy pines for Tommy (Andrew Garfield), as does Ruth in a superficial way. Charlotte Rampling oversees their development, with instructional curricula that do not seem to stray from health classes, and an obsession with healthy bodies that is less creepy than it is institutional. The borders of their world are defined by fear, rife with stories about children slaughtered for going over a fence to fetch a ball. These early scenes proceed at a languid pace, giving us time to know these characters, while leaving us without much understanding of where they came from (likely a birthing center) or where they dream of going. The pastoral settings create an unsettling effect, placing the macabre purposes of the donors in sharp relief. The passive face of Kathy itself runs counter to the human instinct to survive – though learned helplessness is an equally human trait. Even the wind is a supporting character, ever present in the gently undulating grasses that suggest the times are in motion while little of substance changes.
The Donors’ contentment is bovine, so calmly they accept their fate. There are a few outbursts of anger, but for the most part they are resigned, as there is nowhere to run. They have no training, no resources, and the only reason they were bred is to prolong the lives of their genetic matches. Fear is not necessary to keep them in line, and there are no barbed wire fences surrounding their compounds – they actually have the opportunity to drive about on leave, and nobody so much as tries to make a break for it. This is not in their breeding – this is a lifelong habit, and the inferred psychology of this state is engaging in itself. Like the rabbits of Cowslip’s warren in Watership Down, they allow the stream to take them. Never Let Me Go nurtures this theme of how we value our lives based on a sense of mission; the donors have a life with purpose, but it is a purpose without any real life. As livestock, they cannot have families of their own (presumably they are sterile), no jobs, and essentially no struggle of any kind. They simply wait. Another theme comes forth about whether the lives of Donors are any different from the rest of us. We busy ourselves with various tasks, most of which we do out of tradition rather than any sensible logical decisions, staving off any fears of death with a belief system also held out of tradition. Without these things, we live a life similar to Donors, so what is the difference, really? The Donors only talk contentedly about their eventual donations, and no alternative paths are entertained for a moment. Such futile words are too painful to utter.
This would seem a nihilistic work, but there is the question of whether the way in which we live takes us beyond a biologic drive. Namely, is our ability to relate and understand one another an emergent purpose – are our relationships greater than the sum of their parts? There is no real answer to this, and the question is given frustrating due in a subplot about ‘deferrals’. This is where two people in love can hold off on donation for a few years. This is hung in front of the audience, and in front of Kathy and Tommy, almost as an insultingly unlikely ray of hope for our newly happy couple. Hope is always more cruel than resignation when one’s fate is sealed – but again is their life so different from ours? Hope is an emotion one can live better without, as it bears the seeds of any tragedy. And yet we succumb to that human need for hope – for salvation, for a little more time, for good fortune, all of those things that must forever remain out of our reach.
We have time, far too little, and it is gone, defined only by those we have shared it with. Whether this is meaningful is entirely up to you, and is circular reasoning at best. Perhaps this is enough. The Donors in this film grow up together, their shared experiences defined by their eventual fate. The conversations are dominated by talk of the eventual summons for the first donation; followed in quick succession by another and another, until ‘completion’. Many look forward to completion once it begins. This is universally viewed as awful, but necessary. Their world is vanishingly small, and throughout they are detached to a surreal extent. Detachment is the only way to regard oneself when every moment of life is spent in existential crisis. So they hold on to one another, and it seems their lives fall to pieces when they split up and go their separate ways. Maybe they would have in any case, but when they rejoin for a brief time, there is a palpable sense of loss. Ruth says as much when she suggests that Kathy and Tommy belong together, and essentially forces them to acknowledge the love they denied growing up. And they are happy, for a while at least. This is made to sound insignificant while being the only world they have, and worth every minute they have left. The organ donation angle provides a poignancy to the time which is fleeting, and brings the present into far sharper focus.
The class system that gives rise to this industry gives rise to an ethical morass, left in the background to fester, rearing its necrotic head from time to time. Those who are given life to provide organs, and those who have the power to receive them. Money is never mentioned, though it must always be a part of the discussion. After all, the enormous medical system that must be dedicated to this sure as shit isn’t staffed by volunteers. Charlotte Rampling gives a gloriously icy performance as the representative of this system. In answering a question about the art projects the Donors labored upon as youths, she intones “We did not have the art gallery to look into your souls. We had it to see if you had souls at all.” The utter blackness in her eyes gives her answer. The cozy ‘schools’ over time gave way to ‘battery farms’ as a mirror to progress, and the inevitable adaptations of the free market to such an industry. I was gratified that this was mentioned in almost a throwaway moment, leaving us to come to our own conclusions.
Undoubtedly, you came away from Never Let Me Go with a different take on its deceptively simple themes. Fortunately, the film is left open enough to project your own fears and false hopes upon the screen to consider. This film is what you bring to it. The strong performances and the extraordinarily light touch by director Mark Romanek provide a comfortable ride on this disquieting journey. If you are not interested in existential questions, then this film likely abandoned you.