Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek's introspective adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is a work of subtle beauty — a melancholy meditation on the finality of life and the choices we make as our time shortens.
That observation might make the movie sound like a downer, but it's not. It is sad in a beautiful, peaceful manner, and its exploration of mortality is different from most others, because the three central protagonists are all barely in their 30s.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) have been friends since childhood, when they attended Hailsham boarding school in 1978. The pastoral campus seems like an idyllic place to grow up, although there are curious rules. The students must never set foot outside the school grounds, for instance, or they are certain to die horribly.
"Keeping yourself healthy inside is of paramount importance," Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) tells her pupils, a curious way to encourage kids to remain fit. Never Let Me Go, which was adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland, lets you know from the outset that this seemingly ordinary story belongs to the science- fiction genre. A title card at the beginning informs us, among other things, that due to medical advances, human life expectancy had passed 100 years by 1967.
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But those advances have come with a cost. "None of you will do anything but live the life that has been laid out for you," another teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), tells the students. "You have to know who you are and what you are. It's the only way you'll lead decent lives."
Miss Lucy is promptly fired for her lack of discretion, but the kids remain unperturbed — and stay that way when they graduate from Hailsham when they turn 18 and move to a collection of remote farm buildings known as The Cottages, where they are free to mingle but discouraged from venturing too often into town.
Kathy, who harbored a raging crush on Tommy when they were younger, stands aside silently when he and Ruth become a couple as teenagers. Of the trio, Kathy, the film's narrator, is the quietest and most observant. Tommy, who has managed to control the tantrums he suffered as a boy, seems to drift along wherever the current takes him. Ruth, who appears at times to be motivated by jealousy and resentment, is the most eager to enjoy whatever pleasures life has to offer, as if she were racing against some looming clock.
There is a crucial element in the premise of Never Let Me Go that I haven't mentioned, because the movie, like the book, unfurls it gradually, allowing the consequences and repercussions of the idea to gather resonance and power as the characters get older. Romanek (One Hour Photo) shoots the film in a quiet style that mirrors Ishiguro's haunting, delicate prose, and although the protagonists' dilemma is specific and otherworldly, the feelings they experience and their unspoken resignation to their fate are universal.
Never Let Me Go argues that life, preordained or not, is what we choose to make of it and that sadness can be a valuable and useful tool to help us recognize moments of fleeting beauty that otherwise might pass unnoticed.