Listen up, because you won't hear me say this about a film very often: Never Let Me Go—a movie that promotes itself as a drama in which the three main characters must "confront their feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that threaten to pull them apart"—is not long enough. I'm hesitant to complain about this because, far too often, filmmakers add a scene where one should be deleted, or simply lose their ability to edit scenes that don't keep the story moving along. (The film that comes to mind here is 2012, which I finally saw last month and which clocks in at an astonishing 158 minutes, regressing from "fun and dumb action movie" to "atrocious waste of time" during the final hour.)
Like 2012, Never Let Me Go is a science fiction film, though you're going to need binoculars to find it on the other end of the sci-fi spectrum. It is smart, subtle and deeply disturbing. It also asks a lot of its audience as we follow the main characters during three periods of their life between 1978 and 1994. The ambition is admirable, but to build the tension and make us believe in the complex relationships on screen needed more than 103 minutes. This best explains why, when a young man looks up to the night sky and screams his heart out to no one in particular during a wrenching climatic scene, I feel for him, and I want to believe it, but I'm not quite there. And this, unfortunately, is also why the critically acclaimed book by Kazuo Ishiguro on which the movie is based (which I haven't read) may be the better choice if you're deciding between the two mediums.
We meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as adolescents at a British boarding school, where it's quickly clear that all is not normal. Everything feels a bit off, from the electronic monitoring devices to the stilted dialogue and obsession with staying healthy. So odd and robotic is the behavior that I initially assumed that the kids were in fact some form of artificial intelligent beings.
The truth, as we slowly learn during this first act, is far worse. I'm not giving away anything when I tell you the children are parent-less clones—genetic copies of junkies, prostitutes and prisoners—who were created for one reason: to donate their organs. This is explained to the strangely unemotional children via a distraught teacher who tells them that none of them will live past young adulthood. They will eventually be scheduled for a series of donations, the last of which will result in "completion," the film's eerie and often-used euphemism for death.
This is the dystopia of a recent past from which Never Let Me Go evolves. There are so many questions about how a society could allow this to happen, but the film rightly proceeds without really answering any of them. It just is—that's all we need to know, and it allows the filmmakers to proceed with the strange love triangle that develops during these adolescent years. It's a young teenage drama we've seen before: Kathy likes Tommy. Tommy likes Kathy, but then Ruth enters the picture and steals Tommy away. Kathy pretends like this okay. All three remain friends.
When we next see the trio it is seven years later and the young adults are in a purgatory of sorts, living their lives with some independence while awaiting the inevitable "scheduling." At one point we finally get a peek into the donation process, where the willing patients are never sure which operation will be their last. And it's about at that this point that I scribbled, "This is really effed-up," in my notebook.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), who narrates the story as a young 20-something, becomes a "carer," tending to those in the donation process while waiting for her own day to come. Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are still a couple, but for how long? By the time we reach the final act, in 1994, all three have drifted apart.
It is hard to escape the sadness here, and nothing is worse than the acceptance with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy live their lives. They have been conditioned since birth to accept their fate in this world, knowing they are but a means for others to live longer and healthier lives. The most heart-wrenching aspect of it all is that no one ever even considers running away. This is who they are. Society has decided that donors lack souls and are therefore dispensable, and the logic that somehow a clone isn't really human is...well, you know the adjective I'm looking for.
Mulligan is the most brilliant as a young woman all too resigned to her fate, yet hopeful for a temporary reprieve in the form of a deferral that she believes is possible. Director Mark Romanek somehow manages to make this final act concurrently calm and frantic, using the inevitability of the situation to create palpable tension as old relationships die and new ones emerge. In the end, well, I wanted to believe the angst. Another 20 minutes is all it would have taken.
Never Let Me Go continues at the Wilma Theatre.