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When British author and screenwriter Alex Garland re-hashed Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, what resulted is a film that does justice to the original format. Heartbreaking and beautiful, upon first glance, neither the film nor the novel exhibit much indication of it being a work of science fiction. But it is. A story delicate by nature, it is as much a drama film as it is an exploration of the possibilities in the realm of regenerative medicine. It awakens the mind to the ethics of humanising and dehumanising, and the blurred line that exists between them.
Kathy H. (played by the adorable Carey Mulligan) is looking into an operating theatre, vague images of equipment and hospital staff appearing in reflections of the glass in front of her. A patient appears to be wheeled in for a procedure. She begins to narrate her story, divulging her age, and that relating to the past is far more bearable for her.
Her story begins in 1978, in the middle of a morning assembly at the very special Hailsham boarding school. Rows of children clad in grey uniforms are singing their school anthem while the faculty oversee their participation with watchful eyes. Their headmistress, Miss Emily, confronts the entire student body about smoking when cigarettes are found on campus grounds. She reiterates the importance of a clean body inside and out and the uniqueness of a Hailsham student in a reprimand familiar to many. The students find solace in this seemingly maternal protectiveness.
During recess time, a much younger Kathy (younger version played by Izzy Meikle-Small), and her friend Ruth (younger version played by Ella Purnell) are relaxing on the grass. Ruth is playing with a miniature toy horse and thinking about how many horses she would like to have when she grows up. The tone in which she talks Kathy down while expressing her equestrian dream makes it apparent that she possesses a dominant personality. Kathy is visibly hurt, but responds by giving Ruth the crown of flowers she had been forming during their talk. The tension dissipates and the two giggle as though Kathy’s feelings were never hurt. They turn toward their school building, where a new faculty member, Lucy, is standing. They have been devoid of a guardian for some time, and Miss Lucy is assigned to the duty.
Miss Lucy is then seeing watching over a sports game of the year four students. Kathy serves the ball, and it flies far out of the field. Kathy cheers Tommy D. (younger version played by Charlie Rowe), who is standing in the back of the field. However, it goes beyond a low-height fence and Tommy stops pursuing it. Miss Lucy finds this puzzling and asks the a few of the girls for the reason behind Tommy’s hesitation. When they respond by telling two gruesome yet obviously fictional stories about two students who perished beyond the bounds of the fence, Miss Lucy is disturbed.
Tommy is a misfit. While incredibly gifted in art, he is often teased by other students — including Ruth — for both his work and his ability in sports. When he goes into a fit of rage after not being picked for a football match, Ruth and a handful of other girls jeer him from the corner, while Kathy, who had been observant of him, approaches the field in an attempt to comfort him. However, Tommy hits her in the face, and Miss Lucy calls Tommy for a private conversation before she has the time to process what had happened. During the school’s routine medical check-up, the bruise is briefly scrutinised, but is later dismissed as nothing of major concern. Kathy then visits Miss Lucy to ask what their conversation was about, and learns that Miss Lucy’s conversation with Tommy had been about how creativity and athleticism is of little matter. Tommy later apologises to Kathy over lunch, promising to control his temper, and a friendship blooms between them.
Ruth and Kathy share whispered girl talk during bedtime. Ruth makes a remark about Tommy having “changed”, which abruptly ends the conversation. The next day, Kathy and Ruth spy on the faculty members making selections of artwork for display. This puts the students on high alert, because it means the visitation of Madame (played by Nathalie Richard), the owner of the art gallery. After her arrival is announced during the morning assembly, Miss Emily makes light of a sale. While the sale triggers a school-wide excitement, both Miss Lucy and Kathy do not share the enthusiasm of the masses. Kathy decides to sit this particular sale out. Tommy finds her, giving her a cassette of Judy Bridgewater. Kathy thanks him with a kiss on the cheek. She listens to the cassette alone, swaying to the song while holding her pillow. When she turns around, she finds Ruth watching her.
The next day, Miss Lucy, after seeing the events that transpired during her job as a guardian, as well as learning about Hailsham’s culture, tells her class information that will inevitably send her packing. Unlike most children, who grow up to the array of choices of professions, the students of Hailsham have an entirely different purpose. The “paramount importance” Hailsham places on health is due to the fact that the children will eventually grow up to donate their vital organs in a series of donations until they “complete” their short lives. They lead healthy lifestyles to ensure the pristine quality of their donations. In a world where the average life expectancy has passed 100 years, society has divided people into those who receive longevity by donors, and those who donate at the expense of their lives. These children are created for the latter. In other words, these children are clones.
Although Miss Lucy is dismissed, the mark of her words ring permanent. Kathy, who had been disappointed during the school sale of dilapidated toys, wonders if there’s futility in having any potential at all. Ruth, in her own way of coming to terms with her fate, makes a move towards Tommy. Though the attraction between Kathy and Tommy is more apparent and far more established, the two never openly confront their feelings. Ruth and Tommy engage in a relationship that lasts a couple years past their graduation (of sorts) from Hailsham.
When complications arise between the trio’s friendship, Kathy leaves to become a carer. A carer is someone who looks after donors until they complete. Her nurturing personality allows her to perform her job well. Years pass, and a carer-related hospital visit brings Kathy to a very familiar portion of her past: she would reunite with an older but weak Ruth (played by Keira Knightley), poorer by several vital organs. Ruth, who during their stint at “The Cottages”, carried herself tall in comparison to Kathy and Tommy (played by Andrew Garfield), is now a reduced version of who she used to be. In spite of Ruth’s health, their chance encounter brings the three friends together one last time.
Becoming a carer buys Kathy some time before she becomes a donor herself. She finds humility in her fate and pride in the contributions made by her “kind”. In addition to the gift of a few more years, she also finds love.
Predominant in hues of grey, brown, green, and blue, further gradations of these colours are created through the use of light. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel creates the dystopian reality of “Never Let Me Go” with a touch akin to many classical paintings familiar to galleries and the textbooks of art history classes.
In fact, the setting created for film adaptation is much like my personal interpretation when I read the novel back in college. I did not expect something futuristic, but rather the past’s perception of futuristic. My interpretation is pocked with deliberate inaccuracies, but not greatly exaggerated ones; the significant progress of medicine is there, but not the purported existence of flying cars. Perhaps the only discrepancy between director Mark Romanek’s vision and my imagination is that the film contains less fog. Rather, no fog at all.
Known for other cinematographic gems like “Capote”, Kimmel gives the story the delicate touch it deserves. He manages to create a great balance between captures so picturesque that it looks like a carefully directed arrangement for a photograph, and emphasising the natural movement of the characters from frame to frame. I’ve compiled several of my favourite cinematographic moments of the film:
Though the film did not reduce me to a blubbering mess of tears, the novel sure did.
“Never Let Me Go” is beautiful, visually and conceptually. Heavy with symbolism, its execution is so soft it can easily be construed as moments of artistic license. Save for some minor plot details, the film itself is loyal to the book. Unsurprising, seeing as Kazuo Ishiguro himself provided constant input during its production.
The casting choice is stellar. Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield manage to nail the chemistries of the characters. Knightley’s portrayal as the dominating Ruth combined with the meek portrayal of Kathy by Mulligan achieve the tense nature of their friendship. Andrew Garfield is a shining star all on his own as the inquisitive yet temperamental Tommy, and is able to make the switch between the half-hearted boyfriend (and later, wholehearted friend) of Ruth and the boy who seeks the comfort of Kathy’s friendship and eventual love.
“Never Let Me Go” is a soft yet painful look at three people who are told they are expendable, only for them to search for life with a greater determination. It is a film that encourages dignified living, even though one’s ultimate purpose — and end — is already paved and known.