Life is destined to be short in order to fulfill the purposes of others—maybe, maybe unless true love can be proven. Imagine that. In a devastating alternate world created by Kazuo Ishiguro through bound book and Mark Romanek through film in Never Let Me Go, three young people struggle with this concept, reflecting on their relationships with each other as they can only attempt to fight what can’t be avoided.
Taking place over the course of over fifteen years in quiet parts of England, Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy (Carey Mulligan), following an on-screen explanation that a medical breakthrough in 1952 has allowed the human lifespan to be extended beyond 100 years. The reason for this is that certain individuals live only for the purpose of donating their vital organs before they “complete.” That is what Kathy and her two best friends Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) discover as children at Hailsham boarding school, that they are some of these destined donors. As they grow up and apart as their relationships complicate, they try to piece together bits and pieces from their time at boarding school in hopes of finding the truth about their existence and how to possibly win against their fates.
The idea of a dark alternate universe, where donating organs is not a choice but an obligation for a selected few, is intriguing and sounds like grand material for a stellar film. However, stellar is only what it should have been. Ishiguro’s story (Having never have read it personally) sounds fine, and ultimately, the movie is too. What holds it back from achieving higher marks is its occasional sluggishness—stalling through important key points and explanations about the purpose of the three leads—and the half-hearted love felt in the “love” triangle. For a film being marketed as one about “everlasting love,” the relationships between Tommy and Kathy and Tommy and Ruth felt more like extremely deep friendships withstanding the test of time as opposed to romance, despite the sexuality, betrayal, and guilt involved. There’s nothing wrong with “friends,” but if people are going to tell other people that this is a romantic drama as it is a sci-fi drama, the chemistry and the script say otherwise.
Perhaps it’s better and more reasonable to think of this film as one about morality and humankind—what it means to have a soul, to feel, to live fully, to be able to make choices, and to support others through trying times. Choosing to take upon those abstract thought provokers and looking at a bigger picture is more valuable than any character plot for this movie. Though the actors’ magic with each other could have been better-founded in the romantic sense, they give shining individual performances in one of the production’s strongest aspects. Mulligan and Knightley continue to prove themselves as emotionally engaging leading ladies, though Knightley slightly outshines Mulligan with her performance in a more diverse and tortured role. Garfield especially impresses with a technique that seems to echo his acclaimed performance in The Social Network, by playing it off subtly yet with a slowly building anticipation so nerve-rattling about an inevitable breakdown. But it’s even more impressive how much he really lets loose in that breaking point and makes it feel real.
With its thought-provoking story, meaningful themes about living, and lovely cast of young and respected British stars, Never Let Me Go is gorgeous and melancholy cinema. But though it’s sweet and sad for that hour-and-a-half or so, I found it all too easy to loosen that grasp.