It is hard to pin Never Let Me Go down to a specific genre. Conceptually, it is tied to Science Fiction, but its matter-of-fact approach to the material and emphasis on human emotions and relationships makes that aspect all but unrecognizable.
Told from the perspective of Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), the story spans about twenty years in the lives of three students at the fictional Hailsham boarding school. Although the dates provided place us firmly in the past, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the past we know. The film has no interest in being coy, and we are told quickly and bluntly that these are no ordinary children. The first mysteriously dropped hints, (electronic wristbands, odd comments from teachers, the students’ pathological fear of leaving the grounds), soon materialize into a very blunt and horrifying reality.
All the students of Hailsham are clones, grown only to be harvested for organs when they reach maturity. At this point it begins to seem chillingly ironic that this process is referred to as a life-saving medical breakthrough at the start of the film, and is seen by society as positive and progressive. Even more frightening is the children’s reaction to this information – almost total indifference.
It is probably fair to assume that this flat acceptance of a repulsive reality is meant as a deliberate commentary on social constraints and educational brainwashing. Unfortunately, after the initial shock, it begins to come off as terminal apathy, making the characters, especially Kathy herself, seem too unresponsive.
As the three children develop and grow into adults, Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy form into a confused love triangle, with Kathy yearning passively after the emotionally volatile Tommy, who is ensnared by the vibrant and sexually extroverted Ruth. Leaving Hailsham, the young clones are transferred to a community of “cottages”, where they await their turn to become donors and eventually “complete” their short lives.
Conceptually the plot seems heavy and depressing enough to carry a significant emotional and moral weight, and director Mark Romanek seems almost too aware of this. It is hard to focus on the characters’ quarrels, misunderstandings, and emotional entanglements when we know from the start that they will all be slowly disemboweled and die a horrible, lingering death before the film is through. The film attempts to twist the ordinary settings, rainy beaches, familiar personal struggles, and recognizably drab reality of the characters into a sort of gnawing poignancy, but it frequently just disintegrates into numbness.
You may catch yourself thinking that you are much less scared of what is happening, than of the fact that it doesn’t feel as disturbing as it should be. There are some strong words tossed around about Love, Loyalty, Destiny, and Friendship, but they only end up falling flat.
As Ruth prepares to “complete” on her third donation, she tries to redeem herself by helping Tommy and Kathy get a deferral from their donations by forming and proving a romantic relationship, but we are never really fooled into hoping for a reprieve. Keira Knightley, incidentally, is very convincing as a spoiled, bossy, sensual beauty, but loses none of her coquettish mannerisms when she is meant to be physically crushed and morally repentant, providing zero character development.
Carey Mulligan’s Kathy is gracious and accepting to the point where it is almost impossible to feel sorry for her. She is so far from being emotionally invested in her own fate, and so unwilling to fight for any semblance of free will, even to save those she loves, that it is hard to believe she is still alive.
Gifted with a somewhat more emotionally charged role, Andrew Garfield tries to push Tommy almost into the realm of Italian Neo-Realism, complete with fits of passionate wailing and collapsing on the ground. That is pretty close to the kind of reaction you would expect to what is going on, but comes surrounded by such a veil of frozen apathy that it seems overblown and artificial in context.
If it had explored the themes and ideas that it only hints at, Never Let Me Go could easily have been a powerful and emotionally unwatchable film. For better or worse, it is saved from that fate by its down-to-earth approach and mostly uncommitted performances. It is neither painful nor unendurably emotionally draining, merely depressing and vaguely disturbing.