It would seem that “Never Let Me Go” is happening in the future, with its sci-fi premise and themes of utilitarianism and morality.
But instead, it takes place over an altered history, where a certain type of medical breakthrough was perfected in the 1950s. After that, society was forevermore set up as a structure to serve that medical purpose.
I’m deliberately dancing around revealing exactly what that is, because it’s paramount to the story. The film is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, so if you’ve read it, you know what happens.
The story starts by focusing on three young children at a stately, secluded English country boarding school, where contact with the outside world is forbidden.
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We’re introduced to Kathy, who as a young girl already seems wise and thoughtful. Her friend Ruth, however, is a manipulative brat who soon figures out that Kathy likes a misfit boy, Tommy, who is given to episodes of violent rage.
Ruth and Tommy end up together, and clearly this breaks Kathy’s heart.
Fast-forward to age 18, as Kathy (Carey Mulligan of “An Education”), Ruth (Keira Knightley of “Atonement”) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield of “The Social Network”) are leaving the school, now fully aware of their dark purpose in life.
But they are happy to be moving on, to a place called “the cottages,” with other people who have been raised at similar schools.
This is their first contact with the outside world, and they find that their exercises in school haven’t adequately prepared them. When they venture into the city, they freeze when a waitress asks them what they want to order.
Eventually, Kathy leaves the cottages and goes out on her own, away from Ruth and Tommy, unable to contain her longing or jealousy.
We meet the trio again when they are reunited 10 years later, as their fates close in.
Former music video director Mark Romanek keeps the film surprisingly subtle, without flashiness. Everything is frankly presented and drawn out, which makes for a slow burn to the film’s horrors.
It helps that everything looks innocent enough — the settings are idyllic and peaceful (it could be a Merchant/Ivory period piece) — in stark contrast to what’s really happening.
“Never Let Me Go” has a truly fascinating premise, but what humanizes the tale is the tragic, unsentimental love story between Kathy and Tommy.
And what makes that work are beautifully complex performances from Mulligan and Garfield. We practically ache for them. (Knightley, too, is stellar.)
In the end, we also pity them. They’re utterly helpless.
It’s a strangely numbing experience, but “Never Let Me Go” is a haunting, melancholic meditation on life and mortality.
“Never Let Me Go”
Three and a half stars
Rating: R (some sexuality and nudity)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Showing at: Warren Theatre (east)