Based on the 2005 novel by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a successful example of sensationalist plot and subdued language gone celluloid. It’s the mid-1990s, and the British government is cloning humans to provide donor organs for transplant surgeries. The story is framed by the reminiscing voice of our heroine, Kathy, played by the kind-eyed Carrie Mulligan. She looks back on her formative years spent at Hailsham, a boarding school established to educate and incubate child clones until they’re ready for their first donations at age eighteen. It follows her relationship with Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield, and Ruth, the archetypical frenemie who snatches him away, played by Keira Knightly, who is even more gaunt than usual in the role. For her sake, I hope this doesn’t typecast her as an eternal inpatient; though it feels like her peaked pallor, ghoulish piano fingers, and seemingly detachable jaw might finally have found a purpose.
Adult Kathy is a “carer,” one who nurses donors throughout surgeries until their inevitable, euphemistic “completion.” It’s only a matter of time though before she too will have to donate. Essential information is deployed cautiously, with little dramatic irony. Our vision of Hailsham as a fortifying utopia is destroyed concurrently with the childrens’ naïve innocence. “You will become adults, but only briefly,” says Miss Lucy, an idealistic — and quickly sacked — teacher with a prolicivity towards full-disclosure.
It’s in the film’s final segment that all mounting emotion coalesces. Kathy and Tommy are driving home after being forced to face their close demise. He gets out of the car, stumbles into the middle of the road — profile backlight by the headlights — and begins to howl, werewolf-like. Andrew Garfield’s face is fragile and ropey, like a baby dinosaur’s, and he can distort it terribly when his sweetness breaks into uncontrollable wails. The shot is maintained for a queasily long time, forcing a full spectrum of reaction: first, satisfaction of recognizable repetition (a similar scene transpires earlier when Tommy is a young boy — he slaps Kathy away when she tries to calm him down), then mild disappointment at the predictability of the echoing, then sympathy with Tommy, then repulsion at such a carnal outpouring, then sympathy once again, and finally relief that the scene is not an exact rehashing — that he doesn’t hit Kathy when she tries to comfort him.
The masterful structuring within the last few minutes is when the authorial precision of Ishiguro’s screenplay comes through most. And in his cyclical style, we conclude where we began, with Kathy peering through a pane of glass at Tommy. He’s dying on the operating table, organs extracted one-by-one. The scene is at once clinical and gripping, like an Eakins painting made animate. We see doctors’ hands wielding metallic instruments; we see Tommy’s eyes dim out. Kathy’s closing monologue indicates an acceptance of what’s in store.
Storyline aside, it should be said that Adam Kimmel’s cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design positively feed off the assumption of the audience’s casual anglophilia. And they deliver: There are romps through misty moors, rugby shirts in the perfect shade of ecru, cups of tea resting on leather-bound tomes, girls sitting cross-legged in cable knit sweaters, Wellies by the front door. The coziness ensures our empathy with the clones, who speak, act, and feel just like all the “originals” we’ve ever encountered in life. The fetishizing really only starts to feel sinister during the scenes at Hailsham, which to me came across like a pedophile’s playground, teeming with Tadzios, littered with Lolitas. They do their “maths” homework and play “at sport.” Throngs of pale little thighs trot across green fields. There’s something alarming about such unnervingly beautiful children, especially in great quantity — their rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes straight off an advertisement for alpine muesli. It’s hard to look at children so Aryan and so sprightly and not think Nazi youth. Considering that discussions of cloning always seem to devolve into arguments about eugenics, I guess this is the point.
The seductive details seem endless, and the pleasure they inspire feels, at times, just short of heavy-handed. The children barter for toys with colorful tokens. Glass bottles of creamy milk are systematically snatched up by tiny paws. The aestheticizing is aggressive, but always deliberate. The palette throughout, with its overexposed brightness and punctuating color dissolves (celadon, cornflower, butter yellow), feels like a nod to English films of the 1960s. Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now come to mind. It’s a faded, menacing cheer in keeping with the horrific reality of children who live only to die.
Alternate histories lend themselves well to the screen: Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings. And startling anachronisms are always fun to spot. The British have a rich history of dystopian science fiction, of civic allegory run amok. It makes sense that an insular island — an obsolete empire — would produce extreme parable. The enclosed spaces (gothic manors, futuristic hospitals, thatched-roof conclaves) exaggerate isolation and remove. Microcosms make for good thought experiments. The hypothesis — and conclusion — here seem to be one and the same. Clones: They’re just like us.