It can surely be said of the science fiction genre that a wobbly plot and improbable technologies are part and parcel of its charms. I might not know how a ‘warp matrix’ or a ‘sonic screwdriver’ might work, but perhaps I don’t care, because I am taking a leap into the future where any new technology could exist. But what happens when the new technology in a sci-fi is a new type of human? A new way of considering the body? Suddenly the subject has got a lot weightier and you might find yourself craving a bit of air-conditioning duct or a flux capacitor. Never Let Me Go is a science fiction in the tradition of 1984 or Brave New World, presenting oppressive schemes and human struggle over wacky beeping control panels.
Kathy H, Tommy and Ruth (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley) are young students at a boarding school called Hailsham in a charming countryside estate in England. Their lives seem at first idyllic, reminiscent of scenes from The Secret Garden or of the Pevensey children at playtime, however it soon becomes clear theirs is not so blessed a life. A number of troubling peculiarities arise – the children have no parents, they’ve never left the school grounds or met anybody from outside, they are tagged with electronic bracelets which record their movements and each must attend classes on how the ‘real world’ works. This is no ordinary school, and it is abundantly clear the students are being styled toward some dark and pre-determined future. As they grow up their naivety diminishes and their happy schoolyard memories conflict with unanswered questions about Hailsham and their destinies.
Like fellow literary adaptations Brideshead Revisited and Atonement, Never Let Me Go spans a number of decades during which characters age and relationships fluctuate and mature. The script therefore favours drama over location. Science fiction, however, generally requires a detailed and coherent realisation of a very particular reality. In the world presented by Never Let Me Go, technological advances in medicine have allowed for a number of breakthroughs to be made. The times of multiple sclerosis and “the big C” have been long forgotten, and this bill of national health is wrapped up strangely with the lives of our central characters. Unfortunately, this world doesn’t make a great deal of sense, having not been explained properly because it was elbowed out of the picture by romance and human interest. In turn, the drama suffers from being complicated by the ins and outs of the science fiction elements. It’s half of each yet whole of none.
Never Let Me Go is a film with a plethora of beautiful qualities. It is sensitively coloured and styled, and a great deal of attention has been paid to its very odd historical setting: an alternate 1950’s where medicinal practises surpass today’s for complexity. The film is photographed magnificently, too. Each shot is skirted by a vignette of blurriness, helping to romanticize the pastoral scenes and impersonalise the medical ones. Carey Mulligan gives a very natural performance of the jaded and heartbroken Kathy H and Andrew Garfield, whilst given little screen time, does a tidy job of what he’s given. Kiera Knightley appears as yet another headstrong, sexually-entitled waif and seems unable to alter her tone or manner enough to let us forget that she’s Kiera and concentrate on the character of Ruth. Despite this, Never Let Me Go is likely to provide a thought-provoking and deeply cathartic experience for those who find the characters more convincing than I. It is built on a foundation of ultimately fascinating ideas, and with the aid of what composers call ‘shining strings’ certainly tugs on the heartstrings.
Unfortunately, the plot is holier than a bishop eating Jarlsberg. It’s an alternate future set in the past. It’s a medically perfected society, but we are excluded from seeing any of that society. Worst of all, no character has any clear motivation. Sinister fates looming, they are submissive. Our main characters are allegedly brainwashed, yet we see no brainwashing. To reprieve, even if I don’t know the inner workings of a teleportation device whilst watching Lost In Space, I can still understand why one might exist. Never Let Me Go proposes a world where the instinct for human compassion is overridden, and those crushed by the system do not begrudge it. Like a teleporter, I don’t know how this works, but unlike a teleporter, I cannot conceive of why it exists. A syrupy epilogue further exacerbates this anomaly, preaching the human equity and sweeping all unanswered questions under the carpet.
Never Let Me Go is a film that should be really powerful. It pits youth against mortality, beauty against the abject and unpacks the nature of the human condition and the value of life. As I lay in bed ruminating over it’s many inconsistencies, I realised frustratingly that even though Never Let Me Go, didn’t always work as a story, I’d nonetheless been moved by its ideas about human-ness.