Not often does a work of science fiction blithely ignore the science in the fiction, calmly forego the future for the recent past, and quietly swap a world we clearly remember for a dystopian alternative. Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go does all of that, but so subtly and with such understated power that the emotional impact creeps up on the reader only gradually. Then, bam, it hits forcefully, memorably, and, yes, never lets us go.
For all these reasons, this is a very tricky book to adapt into a movie. The delicate tone that is essential on the page is hard to duplicate on the screen, where it can easily spill over at the extremes - too sensational on one side, too mawkish on the other. Clearly aware of the dangers, another novelist, Alex Garland, has done a fine job coming up with a screenplay that respects both the mood of the text and the nature of the plot, the way the dystopian details leak out in a very gradual, muted progression. Yet maybe the film is over-respectful because something big goes missing here. That bam factor is gone: What we see is admirable, but what we feel is minimal.
The picture is framed in the voiceover of our narrator, the soft-spoken Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), who says right at the outset: "I've been a carer for 11 years. ... Carers and donors have endured so much." Carers? Donors? Although the setting is a recognizable England in the 1990s, the words strike us as odd, as does her casual mention that, for decades now, humans have routinely lived to 100 years of age.
Before we've finished pondering that tidbit, the scene flashes back to 1978, to a bucolic British boarding school called Hailsham, which the young Kathy attended. On the surface, the school appears familiar enough, with its uniformed students and starchy headmistress. But again there's a palpable oddness to the place and to this speculative past. The clothes, the manners, the relative absence of technology, all seem more like '38 than '78, as if the society has advanced medically yet has stalled everywhere else. Director Mark Romanek creates this dissonant atmosphere, then just lets it waft over us, like thin fog.
Here, we're introduced to Kathy's childhood friends, the aggressively confident Ruth and the shy, sensitive, perhaps troubled Tommy. More important, we're also given a crucial piece of exposition that I can't disclose but that colours the rest of the picture and establishes the dark heart of the dystopia. Once that revelation arrives, the action flashes forward to 1985, with the friends now in their late teens and living communally at a rural cottage. There, a conventional love triangle forms, with Ruth (Keira Knightley) bedding Tommy (Andrew Garfield), leaving Kathy to look on from a frustrated distance, pining for the man she doesn't have.
At this stage, the story stalls noticeably, and the pacing that once seemed deliberately measured now feels just plodding. But things pick up again with the final jump to 1994, when more of the hard dystopian facts emerge. Now, those ominous words - carer, donor - make awful sense. As they do, we glimpse what the movie is really about. Scrape away the sci-fi trappings and this is really a treatise on mortality, on how frail humans cling to false hopes and happy rationales, desperately trying to distract themselves from the fate that, sooner or later, awaits us all.
Ingeniously, Ishiguro found a way of compressing that universal dilemma for his three protagonists, forcing them to face it tragically sooner than most. In the book, their predicament is harrowingly bizarre and yet peculiarly familiar too. Of course, it's the familiarity that empathetically bonds them to us, and creates that emotional explosion. But in the film, despite Garland's best efforts and an exemplary cast, that bond never quite forms, not even in the climactic and pitiable last frames. There, we're allowed to watch far too dispassionately and to let go far too easily - for all this movie's many virtues, that's its fatal flaw.
Never Let Me Go
- Directed by Mark Romanek
- Written by Alex Garland
- Starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
- Classification: 14A