Director: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley
I love the Oscars but there are two things about Oscar season that I dislike. One is films that are so overtly and generically baity that it verges on embarrassing. The other is the way that the hype machine sometimes latches on to a movie sight unseen and builds up a mountain of expectation regarding its Oscar potential. Then, after the film finally is seen, people are disappointed because it's not in the Academy's wheelhouse and suddenly (and despite the fact that it might be a perfectly good movie) it's marked as a failure in the cultural conversation and gets left behind as the hype machine moves on to its next victim. Never Let Me Go, a gentle science fiction romance, is one of those films. It is not "Oscar-y" in any traditional sense, but it's a very good movie and a prime candidate for critical re-assessment in a few years.
The story - which takes place in an alternate reality in which clones are created in order to provide donor organs - spans decades and follows the short, doomed lives of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield). It begins when the three are children at Hailsham, a special boarding school where, as one of their teachers states, they know their purpose but don't really understand what it means. That teacher is Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), who is deeply affected by her brief time at Hailsham. When she tries to give the children a greater understanding of what they are, she becomes distraught, but the children themselves accept these facts calmly. They have been raised and socialized to accept that their time on earth is limited, that they have a purpose to serve, and that this is simply the way things are. They know no other option, they have been lead to believe that there is no alternative. Because of that they do not rage against injustice but rather accept their fate as a sad fact.
Broken up into chapters, the film takes place at various points in the trio's lives, punctuated by changes in their relationships. As children Kathy and Tommy are in love but, both being shy, Ruth is able to step in, take control and have Tommy to herself. She and Tommy are still together when the three graduate from Hailsham and are sent to "the Cottages," though they break up shortly thereafter. As adults, Ruth's guilt gets the better of her and she takes steps to bring Kathy and Tommy together before there is no longer time left. Rumor has it that if two donors can prove that they are genuinely in love, it can buy them a few extra years before having to complete their donations.
This story, beautifully told by director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland, is interesting for a number of reasons. One of the things that stood out for me is the decision to set the story in the 1970s, 80s and 90s with a quick background explanation that reveals that the scientific breakthrough that made cloning possible took place in 1952 and reached perfection in the late 60s. Since one of the story's major themes is the ethics of creating human beings simply to be harvested (ergo of intentionally and explicitly creating beings who will live a second tier existence), I find it interesting that the science of the story is concurrent with the real-life civil rights movement. The characters have no rights, no public voice, they are segregated, and they are not human beings in any legal sense of the word; they are simply medical beasts of burden. But what makes them different from "originals"? They look human, they interact as humans do, they think, they feel - what, aside from their lack of status, truly sets them apart? One of the things that the story is exploring is the way that we, as a society, talk ourselves into seeing minor distinctions as major and set about trying to define the world according to difference. On the surface Never Let Me Go might be about clones coming to terms with their destiny, but beneath that it is about the humanity which exists in "the other" and how no matter how many social rules and categories we create for each other, on a fundamental level the similarities between us will always run deeper than any of the differences.
One of the questions at the story's center is whether a clone can possess a soul. Late in the film Kathy and Tommy are informed that the artwork collected from the children at Hailsham was a means of determining whether they did, in fact, have souls, which in turn might have forced a public discussion of ethics that would save their lives. I would argue that the simple fact that they hope - not to live but simply for more time - is all the proof necessary that they have souls, that they are human beings just like any other. It would be one thing if they just wanted to escape and live - the instinct for self-preservation is present in all living creatures; but the fact that they understand time in such a way that even a little bit of it is precious to them is, I think, proof enough that the distinction between originals and duplicates is only a matter of societal attitude. The film doesn't spend a lot of time exploring the big picture in terms of how people feel about cloning or the lives of clones themselves, but whenever it touches on the subject, it makes it count.
Never Let Me Go tackles a lot of big themes but it manages to do so on a very intimate scale by creating distinct and engaging characters. It's a shame that the Best Actress field is so crowded this year and that the film itself has already been written off as an also-ran in many circles, because Mulligan's performance here is wonderful and deserving of attention. In her hands Kathy is a character of quiet endurance, a pillar of strength at the story's center that helps keep it from sinking in sentimentality. Her final moments in the film are devastatingly perfect, wrenching in fact. Never Let Me Go is a profoundly sad film, but a very good one that deserves better than the lacklustre response it has received thus far.