UPDATED: October 6, 2011
MOVIE RATING: 4 stars ( B+ )
Never Let Me Go (2010) is one of those small, well-crafted indie films that typically only diehard cinephiles seek out and appreciate. But the rewards for that search are well worth the effort here. It’s a science-fiction film in the very broadest sense of the genre, but to me it’s really just an existential coming-of-age love story within a vague sci-fi like framework. And when I say sci-fi, I mean in terms of a movie like Gattaca (1997), a fantastic, futuristic, character-driven, but vaguely sci-fi film. Never Let Me Go is much less sci-fi than Gattaca, but I think if you appreciate and like Gattaca, then you might appreciate and like Never Let Me Go.
There are a few movies that I was strongly reminded of while watching Never Let Me Go: Dead Poets Society (1989), Gattaca (1997), and A Single Man (2009). I think the mid-20th century boarding school feel of Never Let Me go, at least in it’s first act, is what reminded me so strongly of Dead Poets Society. But as the film plays out, it reminds me more of Gattaca and A Single Man. All three of these films deal with the topic of “completion” (i.e. death), in similar ways to this one. There’s a strong sense of sacrifice that comes with suicidal death in all four films, but each takes a slightly different look at the topic.
The story of Never Let Me Go is centered around Kathy (played byCarey Mulligan and Izzy Meikle-Small), Ruth (played by Keira Knightley and Ella Purnell), and Tommy (played by Andrew Garfield andCharlie Rowe), who are human “clones” living purely to be future organ donors for “real” people. These three characters, along with hundreds and probably thousands of others, are raised in boarding schools around England without parents. Instead, teachers or guardians take care of raising and educating them, telling them as little as possible about the real world outside of the school (which feels more like a juvenile detention facility or prison). The kid clones only know what they need to, so that they understand, internalize and embrace their limited “special” life purpose and nothing more. It’s a chilling scenario because these kids are all going to grow up just to give themselves over to die (or “complete” as it is called in the film). They are brainwashed from birth that they are simply living organ donations…nothing more…and that they are special because of that.
Never Let Me Go is a movie that really asks two key existential/spiritual questions: What makes us human? And why are we living? By looking at these questions through the abbreviated lives and experiences of these three cloned humans, we get this sort of abstract overall view of ourselves through their eyes. Is it love that makes us human? Is it sex that makes us human? Is it friendship that makes us human? Is it art that makes us human? Is it self-awareness that makes us human? These are answers to these core questions, along with many more, that the film ponders in a subtle way. The film doesn’t really give answers as much as it asks the questions and allows the viewer to come to their own answers, if any, through the characters and their journeys. I like that the filmmakers here have left us with open-ended questions because it gives the movie something to continually look at over the course of my own life as I watch the film again.
I’ve listened to podcasts with writer Kazuo Ishiguro (who wrote the novel that this film is based on), screenwriter Alex Garland, and director Mark Romanek, and they all confirm that this film is really just a vehicle for looking at life in general and what it means for us to be living. It’s a story of what it’s like to be human. But because we are so self-aware, we often times have to see our lives through the lives of others to really see ourselves. And that is what cinema is all about in my mind. It’s a vehicle for reflection…it’s a mirror. Sometimes the mirror is ornated and jewel-encrusted, and other times it is plain and simple, like it is here. Kathy, Ruth & Tommy are trying to find the meaning in their short lives as clones, which they are told is their life purpose, just as we are trying to find the meaning and purpose in our lives as humans.
By having Kathy, Ruth & Tommy live shortened lives due to their planned organ donations, they have to deal with the issues of mortality and purpose early in their life. And they arrive at acceptance of their mortality in a quicker and more finite amount of time. Their lives are truncated, so they get to what’s important in life faster than the rest of us. We typically linger through three of the clones’ lifetimes before getting to where they get much earlier.
While Never Let Me Go is a bit slow in its pacing and editing at times, stumbling along the way, the movie really grabbed me internally after I left the theater and it has stayed in my mind ever since then. I think the story could have been told in a more engaging manner, but I give it credit for sinking its claws into me and not letting go. I can’t say enough about the quality of the acting by the three leads. Knightly, Garfield, and Mulligan all really show their talents as up and coming actors in this feature.
The production design and cinematography on the film are both beautiful and appropriate for the story. While we don’t really know if we’re in the past or the future, the sort of 1960s to 1970s look and feel of Never Let Me Go worked for me to create an interesting context for the story to occur in. Rachel Portman’s score has a beautifully quiet tone throughout the movie and it lends just the right emotional queues when necessary. I’ve listened to the score a dozen or more times on its own, and I really appreciate what Portman did here. She captured the existential questioning of the story in her score and every time I hear it, I think of the movie.
Never Let Me Go is a character-driven dramatic film with a lot of psychological depth to it. While on the surface it seems to have very few emotions throughout it, the emotions are there and they build-up to a satisfying ending for me. I think the film’s lack of box office success is not due to the film itself as much as its due to the subject matter. Never Let Me Go is not an escapist movie by any means. So it’s appeal to the general public is probably limited. It’s a movie where you go to find out who your are internally and deal with those key questions in life that most people don’t want to deal with. But if you have the courage to look within, Never Let Me Go may just give you something worth holding on to. It did for me.