This year's most anxiously awaited high-brow science fiction movie is also the year's biggest Merchant Ivory-style weepie. The trouble with Never Let Me Go is that high-concept suspension of disbelief and repressed/understated British melodrama don't always go together. Spoilers ahead!
In Never Let Me Go, three ridiculously cute young people grow up together at a picturesque but spartan boarding school, and then fall into an understated (very, very understated) love triangle. The quiet, selfless Kath has the hots for the gawky Tommy, who has occasional outbursts of nonsensical shouting when people tease him. But before Kath can make her move, the spicy, impetuous Ruth swoops down and claims Tommy. All of this angst is told mostly through meaningful stares and the occasional voiceover or heavy conversation, and as with all great British melodramas, it takes place against the backdrop of some horrible disaster that threatens to end our heroes' lives much too soon. The only difference is that in this case, the fate hanging over their heads is science fictional rather than one of those world wars.
Which brings us to the main idea. Never Let Me Go has a premise so nonsensical, it can only be a pure metaphor. In an alternate 1952, we're told, scientists came up with a medical breakthrough: human cloning, to produce an easy supply of organs. Now, common diseases have been eliminated (including cancer). The clones are regarded as not quite human, and there's considerable debate over whether they have souls. The main concern, of course, is to make sure the clones stay healthy enough that their organs are usable.
So the clones are sent to a sort of stripped-down version of an English boarding school, where they're taught art, poetry and so on, and once they graduate, they go to live in cottages until they're in their late 20s, at which the organ "donations" begin and they die soon afterwards. While they live in the cottages, they have television sets and access to automobiles, so they can roam around the country. Some of the clones are hired as "carers," meaning that they spend roughly a decade looking after the other clones who are already having their organs harvested. The whole set-up seems fantastically expensive, if you factor in all the costs on a per-organ basis, and it's hard not to wonder why they don't just keep the clones in little cubicles and then harvest their organs when they turn sixteen.
But like I said, it's a mistake to take the premise of the movie (and the book) too literally — it's clearly a metaphor for other kinds of dehumanization, and the ways in which we take insane amounts of care to provide a kind of pseudo-comfort for the people we plan to destroy or abuse. It's about false consciousness — both the false consciousness of the people who are able to dehumanize these clones at the same time as they go to absurd lengths to educate and care for them, and the false consciousness of the clones who believe in all of the institutions that have been built up around their non-personhood.
A more conventional telling of this story would have a viewpoint character who's one of the oppressors, perhaps somebody who has a crisis of conscience about mistreating these poor clones. (And there are a couple people like that in the story.) But telling the story from the point of view of the clones, instead, forces us to get invested in all of the stuff that these clones have been taught is important: especially while they're at their faux boarding school, Hailsham, that includes a slew of rituals, from singing together to valuing each other's poetry and art and competing to get their work into a mysterious Gallery run by the French/Belgian visitor known only as Madam, to the Sales and the Exchanges. The clones are surrounded — hemmed in — by social institutions, both ones that they've been taught and ones that they've created themselves. Even after these characters "graduate" from Hailsham, we still see them existing within a microculture that has its own customs as well as its own superstitions — including the idea that if you're really in love, you can get a deferral on your organ "Donations."
In other words, Never Let Me Go — with its love triangle and its Brideshead Revisited-style drama about people whose wistful silences speak of complicated inner lives, and its gorgeous scenes of school assemblies and treasured objects and earnest discussions of arcane rules — really hints at the ways in which false consciousness both imprisons and sustains us.
And this is where the book version of Never Let Me Go may have an insurmountable advantage over the film — in the book, Kathy's narration painstakingly describes the art classes, and the ways in which the clones are taught the importance of Creation, as well as things like the role-playing sessions where the clones play-act things like working in a coffee shop in the real world. It all feels no more artificial and weird than any other memoir of an insular British boarding school — but when we're shown these things, in the movie, they feel much more instantly ironic, despite the deliberate slowness of Mark Romanek's direction. In the book, suspension of disbelief isn't a problem, because you inhabit Kathy's point of view so fully and you believe what she believes — but the movie doesn't quite ever succeed in pulling us into Kathy's point of view to the same extent, just because of the limitations of the form. It doesn't help that Romanek skips through incidents in the book at a brisk pace, hitting all of the plot points but never lingering long enough to let us become fully immersed.
Like I said, in some ways, Never Let Me Go is a classic British story of bright/repressed young people who are doomed to go off and die before their time — except that this time, instead of having to be sent off to fight the Kaiser or the Nazis, they're just going to lay down and have their vital organs ripped out. Either way, there's a lot of stiff upper lip and quiet resolve and people staring off into the middle distance.
Here's one of the film's more potent scenes, where Ruth tells Kathy that Tommy only likes Kathy as a friend:
Deprived of the power to pull us into Kathy's story through her all-enveloping voice (except for the occasional voice-over) Romanek instead relies on lots of evocative, painterly visuals. The cinematography in this film has been justly praised, and there's a constant flow of images in between the scenes featuring people interacting: a toy bird, a tree, pieces of plastic clinging to a fence, and other random objects appear in the frame for a few moments, then vanish, as if they ought to be jogging our memories. Or as if we're watching someone's home movies. It's a sometimes distracting, sometimes very effective way of reminding us that we're witnessing a coming-of-age romance like any other, despite the weirdness of the underlying concept.
But that brings me to my biggest complaint about this film, which might not bother anybody else: large portions of almost every frame are out of focus. It's probably intended to give the whole thing a lush, impressionistic feel, but it actually became distracting after a while. Sometimes there's a large out-of-focus object in the foreground of a shot while something else is in focus in the background. And sometimes, it's just that half the frame is in focus while the other half is out of focus.This is a common cinematic technique, but Never Let Me Go uses it a lot. Maybe because I spend way, way too much time staring at a computer screen, I started having to shut my eyes a few seconds at a time, every now and then, to avoid getting horrible eyestrain from staring at so much slightly-out-of-focus stuff. But like I said, that may not bother other people as much as it did me.
All in all, Never Let Me Go is an unrelentingly bleak film in which you watch these three characters grow up and march towards their doom. The film's central love triangle is ultimately futile because they're all doomed no matter what — but, the film suggests, that only makes it even more all-important which girl Tommy ends up with. The movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book, but it does do a great job of bringing the film's dystopian world to life. Even if the main emotion you'll wind up feeling while watching it is a kind of bittersweet numbness.