Based on the Booker Prize-nominated novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Mark Romanek’s bleak film is set in a dystopian future when genetic clones are bred and nurtured to provide vital organs for humans.
It’s a frighteningly plausible vision of medical breakthroughs and moral dilemmas to come, and Ishiguro powerfully explores the fates of three clones as they search for a place in a cruel, unforgiving world that regards them as raw materials for survival.
On the page, Never Let Me Go is devastating, bookmarked into three chapters that represent the key phases of the characters’ painfully brief lives.
On the screen, Alex Garland’s adaptation doesn’t pack the same punch, keeping us at a distance from the clones as they wrestle with destructive human emotions including jealousy.
Romanek’s film is artfully composed, complemented by a melancholic score by Rachel Portman and the cast invest themselves fully in their performances.
However, there’s an emotional chill in every single frame, reflected in the muted colour palette of cinematographer Adam Kimmel, which takes hold and never lets us go.
The film adopts the same three-part structure as the novel, opening in 1978 at Hailsham boarding school, where classmates Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) follow the diktats of headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling).
New guardian Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) eventually tells her wide-eyed students that they will become adults only briefly and will donate their vital organs, completing their short lives with the third or fourth harvest.
‘You have to know who you are and what you are.
‘It’s the only way you can lead decent lives,’ she tells the children.
As they grow up, Kathy (now played by Carey Mulligan) keeps a watchful eye on Tommy (Andrew Garfield), who is weak compared to the other boys, but her affections are thwarted when Ruth (Keira Knightley) pairs off with the lad.
The trio moves to the Cottages in 1985, a residential complex which allows contact with humans.
Ruth, Tommy and Kathy’s complex relationship becomes strained, reaching its (un)natural conclusion in the mid 1990s when Kathy becomes a carer and watches her fellow pupils at Hailsham fulfil their original design.
Never Let Me Go is distinguished by emotionally raw performances from Mulligan and Garfield, and younger actors are spookily well matched to their older counterparts.
Romanek directs with quiet confidence, focusing his camera on the actors and allowing them to do all of the hard work.
Knightley is glacial in comparison to her co-stars, recalling her efforts in Atonement, creating an obvious imbalance in respect to Tommy, who would surely gravitate towards the warmer and caring Kathy.
The film’s final chapter threatens to reduce us to tears but falls agonisingly short of breaking our hearts.
Perhaps I need a transplant from one of the clones.