Never Let Me Go is a visually pleasing rendition of Kazuo Ishiguro's book of the same title, but it nevertheless lacks the emotional heft to sustain its philosophical musings. From the start of the film, a pall hangs around these characters: Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), who identifies herself as a "carer," stands outside a stark operating room where she watches a man prepare to "donate" and most likely "complete" (Ishiguro's semi-veiled term for "die"). Both the book and film are spattered with these euphemisms, but only the book holds out revealing the fate of the characters. The film, even from this opening scene, does a clunky job of obscuring the ending.
We are shuttled back to Kathy H's childhood, spent with her friends Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) at Hailsham, described by its headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) as a special school for special students. The next half-hour or more drones on with almost perfunctory details of life at Hailsham — the students must stay healthy, they must swipe their monitoring bracelets against checkpoints around school, they cannot go outside the grounds. But lacking the mystery necessary to build suspense, the details that should be pregnant with meaning seem dull, washed with gray like the scenery. Indeed, what the film lacks from the very start is a pulse — a lamentable upshot of adapting the slow and steady boil of a novel to the big screen.
My biggest complaint about the film is that, save for a few small hints (the monitoring bracelets, wide-eyed childhood tales about what happens to children who stray outside Hailsham's walls), there is little indication of what would really happen if these Hailsham students tried to circumvent their fate. Nor do the students seem interested in exploring the possibility of another life. At best, they try to postpone their donations, pinning their hopes on a rumor about accommodations made for people who are "truly in love." This sparks a high-stakes love triangle between Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, but overall, there is a sense of tacit submission that rings false.
This muted march toward death may well be an allegory for how we lead our lives (as the end of the film says in no uncertain terms), but the allegory's premise is flawed: In what world would the subjugated not dream of life unfettered? As Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy watch sitcoms and drive into town and stand outside a travel agency, they make no attempt to break free? After this suspension of disbelief, the rest of the film falters. When Tommy stands in the road and beats his breast in protest of his cruel fate, the effect is not heartfelt empathy but removed wonderment, and even discomfort, as the film has not earned this existential breakdown. The scenery, although washed out and pallid, has a quiet beauty perfect for Ishiguro's restrained style. If only the rest of the film weren't so lifeless.
Opening Friday, October 15th