Appearances really can be deceptive. Director Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go looks like many a British period drama that has gone before and its depiction of life at an English boarding school, set in the midst of verdant, rolling fields, is one that will seem familiar to anyone with a taste for the likes of Brideshead Revisited. However, in what is only the first of its many surprises, you’re almost half an hour in before you realise that what you are actually watching is science fiction. Because although this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel may wear the comfy cardigans and prissy blouses of an England glimpsed in Brief Encounter, within its breast beats the dark dystopian heart of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) & Ruth (Kiera Knightly), are all pupils at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham Boarding School in the 1970s. When we first meet them they are children on the verge of adolescence, Kathy falling in love with Tommy only for him and Ruth to start a relationship. However, there are darker secrets at work in their world and we soon learn the harsh reality of their existence when Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), a teacher new to the school, explains to them their true purpose in life. It is a horrific revelation but is presented with very little drama, the children seemingly unfazed and blithely accepting of their destiny. The next day at school, the teacher is gone, never to be mentioned again; the headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) alluding to the need to eradicate disruptive influences.
As the three of them grow up together they are moved to a place called The Cottages, where they meet and live with others like them. And as the suppressed feelings that Kathy and Tommy have for each other come to a head, they discover the possibility that their love for each other may be crucial in postponing a fate that they had accepted as being inevitable.
Never Let Me Go is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the three protagonists, a narrative device that serves to heighten the empathy you feel for them. The life that is set out for each of them is never questioned or challenged and their eager and childlike fascination with a wider society that we never really see (and they will never know) is often heart breaking in its naivety.
All three leads give remarkable performances, with Mulligan in particular offering an astonishing portrait of a young woman haunted as much by her future as she is by her past. She is the sort of actress who manages to convey a stillness beneath which a maelstrom of feeling is conveyed and Romanek’s camera dwells on her visage of thoughtful fragility to remarkable effect. Garfield too demonstrates his increasing versatility with the tricky task of portraying a character who rages against his fate while at the same time being utterly accepting of it. It is a dichotomy that could have fallen flat in less capable hands but one that he pulls off convincingly.
Along with the strength of the performances, much of the power of Never Let Me Go lies in its depiction of a world that looks virtually indistinguishable from our own. In that regard it calls to mind Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, a movie that also took a contemporary social and ethical issue (in that case immigration) and developed it to the extreme, setting its story in a country where some human beings are degraded by a faceless society that condones their treatment. What is disturbing in both movies is that it is recognisably our society.
I finished watching Never Let Me Go and then sat thinking about it for the next 20 minutes. Since then I’ve thought about it off and on every day. Although it is both a drama and a love story, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen in the last decade. It’s just that it is one concerned with very powerful ideas and real human drama, rather than special effects or interior design.
In the end, this is a film from which you may take many meanings. It is a film about the choices we make and how we deal with our own mortality. It is about the inclination within many of us to accept what we perceive as our fate and our remarkable ability as adults to live with it. But perhaps more than anything, it is about how a society can raise its children to believe everything they are told and how completely they will accept it. And that is a responsibility in which we all share.
Extras: Both the Blu-ray and DVD release feature a decent ‘making of’ featurette in The Secrets of Never Let Me Go, along with various stills galleries including Mark Romanek’s photography (taken on set) and a selection of Artwork created by the character of Tommy in the film. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Never Let Me Go is released on Blu-ray & DVD on 27 June