WARNING: The following review contains a somewhat major spoiler involving Never Let Me Go‘s strange, original premise. If you’ve read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but if you want to come into the film not knowing what makes Never Let Me Go different from the crowd of period-based romantic dramas, then this review is probably not for you.
With that in mind, let’s begin…
Movies like Never Let Me Go are of the kind that you get hate for if you like it, and get hate for if you…well, hate it. It’s appeal is pretty much limited. Despite having an aggressive number of fans of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, the indie/critical community has mostly tarnished it for being a bit too faithful to the acclaimed source material it was based on of the same name, whereas the mass audience have tarnished it by simply not giving a fuck, as it released with no fanfare or confetti, and flew away quickly like passing gas on a subway.
Having said all that, I personally find that Never Let Me Go is one of the best and most underrated films of the last year. No movie is perfect though, and Never Let Me Go does have its problems, but those problems, to me, were smoothly assuaged by a few key elements that I’d like to explain.
First off, the main reason why Never Let Me Go has been vastly ignored was mostly because it’s been marketed as a stuffy, melodramatic, yawn-inducing British romantic period piece. And to its credit, yes it most definitely is a period piece, but not in the boring sense like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, but more in the emotional sense of Joe Wright’s Atonement. Not to compare them though, since I think that Atonement and Never Let Me Go are good in their own different ways, but considering the comparisons these films have been getting (probably due to the fact that Keira Knightley stars in all of them), I figured I might as well jump in the bandwagon.
But back on topic, while Never Let Me Go is a British romantic period piece, there are a few key elements that differentiate itself from the genre. First off, it doesn’t take place in the typical periods of a period piece such as the ’40s or the 1800’s, but it actually spans across the late ’70s, the ’80s, and the early ’90s, which from the trailers, I wouldn’t have been able to really notice. The other element is that the characters are literally clones.
You’re all probably confused by that last sentence, so it’s time to detail the basic plot and spoil the intriguing little premise.
Never Let Me Go is actually a sci-fi film taking place in an alternate version of the ’70s-’90s in which scientists have discovered a way to harvest human clones. These clones have allowed for a plethora of healthy, stable, perfect organ transplants that are able to expand the average life expectancy up to a little over 100 years.
The film revolves around three students of Hailsham University, a special school that takes up the task of raising the clones, keeping them healthy so as to keep their innards healthy, and keeping them educated so they could at the very least know the square root of 144 before their short, sad existences complete. The students in question are Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy (Played in their adult years by Carrey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield). At a young age, a romance between Kathy and Tommy is formed, only to be taken away once Ruth butts in and steals Tommy from Kathy. Kathy, more shy than the out-going Ruth, harbors her feelings of anger and jealousy for many, many years.
Jump forward in time a few years, and the three have grown up, and are now released into the real world outside the boundaries of their school. Unsurprisingly, they don’t fit in. Kathy still has feelings for Tommy, Ruth begins to see the truth behind the cloning procedure, and the three of them have to learn to accept the fact that they were tailor-made to live short, empty lives.
Right off the gate, Never Let Me Go should be praised for being a sci-fi film that treats the sci-fi elements so realistically, and believably that it doesn’t ever feel like you’re watching sci-fi. The sci-fi elements also serve as beautiful metaphors for the omnipresent carpe diem theme, which also makes it work on an artistic level. It is also this very thing that has made it a hard sell for mainstream audiences.
In fact, a lot of what makes Never Let Me Go so great can be counter-stated to say that it’s what makes it so bad.
To me, what I loved about the film was its subtlety. The characters have such an emotional load to bear and are filled with such melancholy, but they never really let on to how sad they really are. The same can be said for the entire movie. It has such a beautifully melancholic feel without really doing that much that is melancholic.
It makes sense considering the film was directed by Mark Romanek, a music video director who’s only previous work was the Robin Williams thriller One Hour Photo, a movie that is able to be creepy without really doing much that is creepy other than showcase Robin Williams’s brilliant performance. Never Let Me Go has that same quality, but it replaces the “creepy” with the “sad”, which is probably why the film ultimately doesn’t work for certain people.
The film is mostly about empathy. The clone characters have to learn to empathize how they feel towards one another, and some of the human characters learn to feel what the clones feel. Most audiences won’t connect with these characters because the characters themselves don’t know how to connect, and while the character eventually and inevitably do learn, it’s up to the audience’s imaginations to connect.
Luckily, just like Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven, the film provides a haunting score, some of the most gorgeous cinematography around, and captures such a beautifully sad mood and atmosphere that you can learn to connect with the characters, and when that happens, the emotional punches hit hard. The final scene of the film involving Kathy mournfully looking out at the field is absolutely perfect and heart-wrenching, and her final monologue, despite spelling out the main themes of the film for everyone, still wrings true thanks to Carey Mulligans blissful performance.
Final Verdict: Never Let Me Go is the type of movie you have to invest yourself in. The film keeps itself at a distance, but allows enough room for you to crawl in and find its golden truth. The actors have rich performances that are able to portray the characters’ internal struggles, its plot is original and defies genre conventions, it contains a lovely score, some of the most gorgeous cinematography for a film in the last 5 years, and has a strong emotional weight to it. A high recommendation for those willing to absorb themselves in feeling completely depressed.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to silently weep to myself on the couch the rest of the day…