STARRING: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Nathalie Richard, Andrea Riseborough

2010, 103 Minutes, Directed by:
Mark Romanek

Think of an art house version of The Island (the 2005 Michael Bay actioner in which Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are clones whose organs are to be harvested for transplants) and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect of Never Let Me Go . . .

The movie is based on a novel, which ironically also came out in 2005, of the same name by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is of course best known for The Remains of the Day, and thanks to a concise script by novelist and sometimes screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, Sunshine) the movie is remarkably faithful to the source book, something which counts both for and against it.

Never Let Me Go follows a trio of children played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield (who has been recently cast as the new Peter Parker / Spider-man) attending what appears to be a somewhat odd boarding school named Halsham in the England countryside.

Most English boarding schools are pretty weird, but there is definitely something off about Halsham. It is revealed pretty early on that the children at the school are in fact clones who exist for one purpose only, namely to supply organs – lungs, eyes, livers, etc. - for transplants. Three or so transplants later and the donor will have “completed” - a polite euphemism for died.

Unlike in The Island, Halsham isn’t run as part of some underground criminal organization. Instead it is part of a government-sponsored health program and the public simply turn a blind eye to the idea of people being killed for their organs. After all, would you really question where a donor lung comes from if your life depends on it?

The movie follows the group of school friends from their peculiar upbringing to their troubled adulthood blighted by an unrequited love affair and the prospect of an early death as involuntary organ donors.

"The movie may be too understated for its own good ultimately . . ."

Did we say “involuntary”?

Never Let Me Go is well-acted and tastefully directed. With its carefully framed widescreen shots and understated soundtrack music it is at times perhaps a bit too tasteful for its own good. Alex Garland’s script tries to hurry things along, often at the expense of emotional involvement. The movie’s denouement however packs a powerful wallop – chances are there won’t be a dry eye in the house. But doubts linger.

The problem lies with Ishiguro’s novel. It may feature science fiction tropes such as being set in some alternate universe in which human cloning existed since the 1960s as well as clones being harvested for their organs, hardly an original idea (see the 1979 movie The Clonus Horror, which was understandably spoofed by Mystery Science Theater 3000). But don’t you dare call it “science fiction.”

After all, Ishiguro’s novel may feature these plot devices, but it never really explores any of them. That is because Never Let Me Go isn’t about the ethics of human cloning or anything like that all. Instead it is – like Remains of the Day - about British character and reserve. None of the characters in Never Let Me Go try to rebel or escape their fate. “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as Pink Floyd sang and that is exactly what the characters in Never Let Me Go do . . .

Ishiguro’s idea of what constitutes “British character” however seems to be taken from the cultural stereotype of the polite Briton who would quietly let a stranger stand on his toe in the bus instead of asking that person to move. It seems be informed by exaggerated clichés of a rarified British isles populated by stiff upper lipped, brolly-wielding accountants in bowler hats, all of which is far removed from the carjacking hoodies and student protestors accosting useless blue bloods on shopping sprees of present day Britain. Has Ishiguro’s England ever existed? Maybe, maybe not . . .

But the way in which Ishiguro’s characters resignedly accept their fate is simply infuriating and contrary to everything we know of human psychology. (One is also reminded of the character in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace who uncomplainingly accepts her rape by three black men out of white liberal guilt.)

Quiet desperation indeed, but if we were in the shoes of our organ donor protagonists we would have drunk like a fish and smoked a packet a day!



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