In 1957, an all-encompassing ‘cure’ is discovered, with life expectancies exceeding 100 years by the 1960s. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are a part of this cure, although as children boarding at the idyllic Enid Blyton-esque Hailsham School, the reality of what this means is as vague and incomprehensible to them as it is to the viewer. Electronic wristbands bleep, pupils are told to take good care of their insides and their poetry and paintings are collected and taken away to the ominous sounding ‘Gallery’, but it is their personal relationships that are at the forefront of the three children’s minds.
Narrated by Kathy (Mulligan), the film follows her love for Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and antagonistic friendship with Ruth (Knightley) through to adulthood, set against the backdrop of their isolation from normal life as they await their fates. Their triangle would not be particularly unique were it not for their extraordinary circumstances – their pre-determined destinies to die young as members of the ‘National Donor Programme’. Whilst the main thread of Never Let Me Go is essentially a love story, the painful yearnings and deep miseries of its characters are both unengaging and uninteresting, deriving from such a highly contrived concept.
After 103 minutes of beautifully shot but tortuously slow-moving emoting and pouting in countryside cottages, around 1980s hospitals and along the Norfolk coastline, the point of the film remains unclear. Rather than posing the question of a hypothetical dystopian future for our society, it follows an alternate route through decades already passed. It is not a question of ‘could this happen?’ because we already know that it has not. The casting of medical progress as a menacing and unfeeling enemy seems an outdated idea, and Never Let Me Go fails to explore it with any greater relevance or detail than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other works of 19th century gothic horror. Were the sinister ‘cure’ of the film a close analogue of our recent biomedical advances or a current ethical debate, then perhaps it could offer a perspective on our real-world existence, but the curing of all human diseases through organ harvesting from clones manages to be both implausible and unoriginal, encroaching upon the territory of The Island (2005).
Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield all deliver convincing and watchable performances, as do the spookily similar child doppelgangers that play them in their youth, but their relationships are unremarkable and their plight absurd and I was left feeling detached and apathetic. As Kathy’s narration draws to an end we are asked to reflect upon our own lives – the lack of control, the desire for more time – but the comparison feels laboured and the conclusions shallow. Upon finishing, I felt that there surely must be an implied criticism of our society running through the film somewhere but all I could really find was a suggestion that organ donation might be unethical. Can this really be what its creators had in mind?