Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, spend their childhood at a seemingly idyllic English boarding school called Hailsham. As they grow into young adults, they find that they have to come to terms with the strength of the love they feel for each other, while preparing themselves for the haunting reality that awaits them.
WARNING: This review is filled with spoilers. I attempted to write a non-spoiler version but failed. I failed hard.
NEVER LET ME GO was a puzzling experience for me. On one hand, it is undoubtedly made with flair, attention to detail and with the aim of telling a moving story in subtle and unobvious ways. Research on the ‘net reveals the film is already developing a following among those who are engaged by its themes and enjoy its artistic execution.
On the other hand, I found it difficult to fully immerse myself in it. To discuss this I will trust that as a savvy AccessReeler, you are likely to have read about the film or have formed a reasonably accurate idea of its subject matter by watching the trailer. If you haven’t, and you don’t want to know more, then this is your moment to exit this review.
The terrible secret of Hailsham is mostly revealed about a third of the way into the story. The children are technically orphans and wards of the state because they have been cloned to provide their organs to ‘real’ people like us. The film is set in an alternate version of England where the technology to create clones and transplant their organs was discovered in the late1950s. Society has allowed the clones extremely limited human rights. They cannot refuse to donate their organs. This process will eventually kill them. The clones are raised from childhood to accept their future. The process is called donation even though they exercise no choice in the matter. Their death is called completion.
I was informed of the set up beforehand and I was looking forward to seeing how the details of the world would unfold. This bleak vision of England is chilling in many ways, but it also felt unconvincing to me. We, the audience, have the same limited field of view as the children do; we are not privy to how the wider society works. We don’t see how this stratified world of full humans and mere slaves operates and so the story is filled with imponderables.
The film is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name. It appears that some of the blanks are filled in that narrative. One thing I noted in reading about the original novel is a mini-controversy about whether or not the book can be described a science fiction. Clearly the book and the film have a science fiction premise. It seems to me the dispute over the genre labelling is one of artistic snobbery.
Basically, despite many examples of good science fiction in both media, there remains something of a stigma attached to the term. The idea among their fans seems to be that it takes a proper literary author like an Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood with THE HANDMAID’S TALE to make science fiction worthy of respect. Which means no robots, spaceships or aliens. Respectable science fiction shouldn’t look like LOGAN’S RUN or THE ISLAND.
However, it was seeing this film and its more literary take on similar themes as the aforementioned pair of populist sci-fi films that made me question this approach to the genre. Or to put it another way, LOGAN’S RUN seemed a bit silly until I saw NEVER LET ME GO. Ishiguro and the filmmakers don’t wish to tell the story of second-class citizens whose will to live makes them test the rules that have been forced upon them. It’s a thriller idea. But it’s also the question on the minds of most of the audience. So why do the three main characters meekly accept their fate? Why isn’t this Kathy’s Run?
Just as we need to understand why the virgin is okay with being sacrificed to the volcano gods in a certain type of film, we need to understand why the young adults of this movie apparently have no survival instinct. This kind of thing needs to be spelled out. Because NEVER LET ME GO doesn’t, then Ewan and Scarlett running across hi-tech walkways wearing tight white jumpsuits in THE ISLAND suddenly seems the more plausible response to a world that wants to harvest their vital organs.
Mark Romanek skilfully directs his leads. Carey Mulligan (AN EDUCATION) is excellent as is Andrew Garfield (THE SOCIAL NETWORK). Charlotte Rampling makes a cameo appearance as the principal of Hailsham School. This alternative Britain looks lush and other worldly.
Despite my difficulties with the film, I found myself thinking about its ideas for some days afterwards. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief while I was watching, but I have mulled the story over ever since. This is a tribute to the work of the filmmakers.
NEVER LET ME GO runs for 103 minutes and will be released in Western Australia on Thursday March 31st. I rated it 3/5.