Perfection is an almost impossible quality to pin down in any art form, particularly film and fiction.Every movie we see is so dense with choices that, stepping back from it, it is unlikely that at least one of them won’t reveal itself to be false. I’ve hardly seen a film that doesn’t seem at least a little bit off in some places, or feels masterfully constructed but possesses a tone that simply feels off. Maybe its just a need to find something wrong in every movie.
Never Let Me Go comes closer to perfection than any film I have seen in a long time. Here is a quiet, delicate, and quite profound film that imagines a reality where human beings are created to donate their vital organs to the sick or the dying. We are told in an opening set of titles that a medical breakthrough happened in 1952 and scientists have discovered how to cure the deadliest of diseases. Human life expectancy has exceeded 100 years. In order for this way of life to sustain itself, these Donors, as the film calls them, must live only to complete their purpose.
The film is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishuguro, who also wrote a great novel called “The Remains of the Day,” later adapted into an excellent film with Anthony Hopkins. I have not read “Never Let Me Go,” but after seeing this film, adapted by Alex Garland and directed by Mark Romanek, I can imagine it is just as thoughtful, meditative and emotionally affecting.
Why? Because the strength of this movie relies almost exclusively on the emotional power of the premise. This is a thoroughly understated film; Romanek and Garland don’t pump up the volume to create a melodramatic sci-fi picture, but convey the film’s emotionally shattering message through subtlety and nuance. They can afford to do this because the film’s base idea is so strong; they don’t have to overstate because the situation itself is bottomless in sadness and pathos. Romanek’s approach is sure-handed and confident, and he produces a film that hits you in the gut with its power.
The film begins in 1975 at Hailsham, a secluded boarding school in the English countryside where Donors spend their early years. The film’s opening scenes are typical of any dystopian work; the children wear bracelets that they must scan upon entering and exiting the buildings, are given little exposure to the outside world, and are fed stories about the terrible things that will happen to them if they leave the grounds. They take classes and entertain themselves with art projects for the school’s gallery.
The film focuses on the friendships of three students: Kathy, a quiet, compassionate girl, Tommy, an outsider given to fits of rage, and Ruth, Kathy’s domineering, confident friend. Kathy and Tommy develop crushes on each other early in the film, but Ruth pulls them apart by moving in on Tommy herself. Kathy retreats into sad solitude.
The story moves to 1985 when the three are taken to live in country cottages where they will wait to make their donations. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightly. Tommy and Ruth have stayed together through the years while Kathy has remained sad and alone, though the connection between her and Tommy has remained strong. Ruth works to keep them apart.
The crux of the film involves a rumor that a pair of Donors, if they can prove they are in love, will be given a few years together before they have to make their donations. The love must be verifiable. Never mind how you can empirically verify love–the film is far ahead of us on that one. But this rumor creates conflict among the three friends; Ruth senses that Tommy and Kathy are a natural match, but tries to keep Tommy for herself.
Yet the film is about so much more than who will be with who in the end. It’s about a frightening way of life predicated on turning human beings into vessels for consumer goods. Tommy, Ruth and Kathy are objectified in the cruelest way imaginable by a society that wants only their organs and couldn’t care less about who they are as people. In fact, it is skeptical about whether or not they qualify as people at all.
I’m sure plenty of people who see this movie will find the society the film imagines appalling and worthy of disgust, but the parallels with our own world are unavoidable. How often do we demonstrate a blatant disregard for human life simply in the name of convenience? How many of us occupy mindless jobs where we are looked at, more or less, as automatons meant to deliver a service with as little fuss as possible? How often do we objectify human beings according to the resources they provide rather than looking at them with empathy?
These are all questions you ask yourself, not questions that the film asks and answers for you. This is a correct and brave choice on the part of the filmmakers. If this were a film that plotted its course through the contrivances of genre, I can’t imagine myself caring very much. There is a version of this movie in someone’s mind where the three leads make a plan to escape their oppressive society and rail self-righteously against its evils. But the film goes deeper, and explores the complexity of people who are born to die but have so much more than they want, and deserve, to do.
The three leads are all well chosen. Carey Mulligan, still early in her career, is always able to convey wisdom that belies her youth. She plays Cathy as the calm, sensible center of the film’s stormy, uncertain universe. She never raises her voice, cries sparingly, and loves unconditionally. Very rarely have a cared about a character more deeply than I did for Cathy. She is the soul of the film.
Andrew Garfield, so good in The Social Network, is impressive here in a different way. He makes the correct choice of playing Tommy as an innocent, desperately hoping there is a way he and his friends can live real lives. His performance reaches its crescendo in a moment where he, and we, confront how unjust his fate truly is. Without ruining what happens, I will say that Garfield’s performance in the moment is as raw, real and unmistakably honest as any he will ever deliver. Don’t be surprised by the tears coming down your cheeks.
And Knightly, who could have so easily played Kathy, is the right choice for Ruth. She is easily the most defiant and single-minded of the group, and is crafty in the way she is able to plant seeds of insecurity in Kathy’s mind that keep her away from Tommy. But Knightly is skilled in the way she creates a real character with Ruth, someone so strong but so helpless and desperate for life.
This is a film that, at its most base level, is about the preciousness of life. It occurs to me that there are so few films that even try to touch on subjects this complex and significant anymore, and even fewer that do it in a way that actually affects you. Never Let Me Go reinvigorates the viewer, reminding them that no matter how hard life is, we are still blessed to have it. Toward the end of the film, a character reflects that no matter how long you live, you always die wishing you had lived longer. One of the things that this film captures in all its resplendent beauty is that no matter how long we live or how much we love, we never really stop. We always want more.
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking film. I expect it will be nominated for several awards, or at least it will be if there is any justice in the world. I had forgotten what it felt like to be this emotionally involved in a movie. As far as the choices that were made in this film, I can’t imagine any one of them being changed to make it any better. It may just be me, but I don’t think you get closer to perfection.