Alibi V.19 No.40 • Oct 7-13, 2010 

Film Review

Never Let Me Go

Overly restrained sci-fi experiment fails to create life

The retro-futuristic, dystopian wonder of window shopping
The retro-futuristic, dystopian wonder of window shopping

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Directed by Mark Romanek

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley

Some people seem to think the new film based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed sci-fi(ish) novel Never Let Me Go is highly subject to spoilers and that those wishing to see the film should avoid any and all reviews revealing the slightest narrative surprise. OK. The film doesn’t play coy with its narrative, tossing aside any lingering sense of mystery right off the bat. But if you’re really curious to see the film and don’t want to know anything about it, here’s the short, entirely spoiler-free review: It’s drab, slow and very talky. Now, if you wanna learn more, read on.

Ishiguro is best known for penning the 1989 Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day—which got made into a veddy proper Merchant Ivory film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Wondering what a science-fiction novel from that guy would look like? A lot like The Remains of the Day, actually.

For the film version (directed by R.E.M., Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Bowie music video guru Mark Romanek), we are whisked away to an alternate-history England. It looks exactly like the colorless postwar Blighty we know. Nothing remotely science-fictional in plain view. But sometime in the ’60s, a medical miracle allowed doctors to cure all disease and extend human life well past the age of 100.

The future has IHOP?
The future has IHOP?

Our story takes place mostly inside an isolated boarding school full of Dickensian children. The children dutifully abide by the strange school’s fairy-tale-like rules. Chief among those rules is that if students wander outside the confines of the school, they will die horrible deaths. As it happens, the children—Surprise! Shock! Spoiler!—are clones being raised solely for their organs. Again, this is not a secret. It’s clearly laid out in the first 10 or so minutes of the film. Astute viewers will recognize that the plot for Never Let Me Go is lifted directly from the 1979 clinker The Clonus Horror. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except Michael Bay already appropriated it for his 2005 clinker The Island.

Rather than build up a mystery about these sad children, Never Let Me Go simply introduces our characters to their horrible fate and then concentrates on a school-yard love triangle between prepubescent Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), sensitive Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and calculating Ruth (Ella Purnell). After a bit of that, the story skips ahead a few years and continues with teenage versions of the same characters. Kathy (Carey Mulligan, An Education), the loser in this particular romantic match-up, is sent out of the school with lovers Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network) and Ruth (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean) to prepare for their upcoming “donations.”

At this point, the logic of the whole situation starts to fall apart. Why would clones, raised merely as nameless organ donors, need to be properly educated? Why would they be allowed to interact with the world at large? It all seems ... rather counterproductive. Although the film gives them ample opportunity to fight their fate, our three main characters passively accept it all. (No rebellion for us, thank you, we’re British.) The love triangle keeps up, skipping ahead a bunch more years and leading to a fairly obvious and rather unsatisfying denouement.

Without a doubt, Never Let Me Go is a mature, thoughtful film. The source material has plenty of dedicated fans. But it just seems like an unfilmable story. The loss of Ishiguro’s elegant prose leaves behind little more than an inert love story and a questionable sci-fi premise. Classy as it may be, it’s all but impossible to warm up to this overly restrained melodrama.