That just about every review of Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, will come with a spoiler alert is proof of how moviegoers, not unlike readers, have come to thrive on “the element of surprise.” The film doesn’t deserve such a warning because Romanek carefully follows Ishiguro’s lead, treating the fact that the story’s characters are human clones as if it were no surprise at all. The nature of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth’s existence is something that’s understood by them and the audience simultaneously, quite early and entirely without fuss—and if it rattles the characters more than the viewer, their confusion is really no different than that of a child learning that there’s no Santa Claus. Call it a rite of passage. If anything, it helps knowing what Never Let Me Go is about from the beginning because it allows us to more accurately gauge why Kathy’s existentially fraught struggle with identity doesn’t completely fly on the page and largely flounders on the screen.
Romanek’s vision is not only faithful to the genteel tone of Ishiguro’s novel, but also to its emotional caginess. There’s a fetching oddness to this most unstereotypically dystopian story set in a not-so-distant past where science has used cloning to save people from terminal diseases. As in the book, the science and history of cloning is never lingered upon, because what matters to filmmaker and author alike is how clones cope with the understanding that they aren’t destined for a life of old age, only “completion” after a series of organ donations. Ishiguro’s overpraised story is essentially a consideration of growing pains and mortality from a unique but not terribly complex vantage point, and if it works at all on the page it’s because the author’s unpretentious flair for detail beguilingly communicates the idea that nostalgia is what most defines us as humans.
If we may call that a philosophy, then it’s one the filmmakers either don’t believe in or don’t care to understand. As in the novel, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) becomes obsessed with a cassette tape, Songs After Dark, by the fictional singer Judy Bridgewater, whose voice suggests the hand of a mother, sister, or kindred spirit reaching out to her from a world where people are “real” and get to be what they want to be and live until they’re old. If the book is ever moving, it’s when Kathy loses the tape and her attachment to it comes to represent the sense of calm we derive from art and material possessions. Her feelings of loss make her recognizably human, but while she still gets the tape from Tommy (Andrew Garfield) in the film, screenwriter Alex Garland doesn’t permit the character to lose it, and as such Kathy’s fixation with the tape gets at nothing; it’s just a means for her to shut out the world, or for the filmmakers to interrupt the blasé and obnoxiously persistent Rachel Portman score with something close to a pop standard.
The novel and film’s emotional remove can be justified: If the plight of the clones never breaks the heart it’s because in isolating the clones of Hailsham from the world outside its gates, the school’s teachers have deprived their students of the cultural interactions that are necessary to make us feel like we’re part of a world alive with history, tradition, rules, entertainment, and, most of all, agency. But in the novel that remove at least felt like an intentional artistic decision, because the manner in which the children of Hailsham communicated, hurt and forgave each other, even fucked, became this creepy expression of what people might behave like if they have gone completely without real-world behavioral models. In the movie, though, the characters’ actions, from their bickering to their sexing, don’t feel appropriately warped (Ruth, impetuous on the page, is practically a wall flower on the screen), while the interactions between the teachers and students at Hailsham isn’t at all rife with the what-are-they-thinking-about-us mystery of the book.
There are two fantastic scenes in the film. One, at the Cottages where the clones go to after leaving Hailsham, shows Ruth (Keira Knightley, convincingly awkward) pathetically aping the behavior of actors from a terrible British situation comedy and, later, Kathy admonishing her friend for reasons she probably doesn’t completely understand. (You get a sense that Kathy would be an activist in the real world if she knew what activism was; Mulligan’s triumph is the way she cannily conveys how that sort of drive toward revolt and independence is in our nature but dies if it isn’t nurtured.) In the second, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy join a couple in a mission to find the human that ostensibly served as the model for Ruth, and at a diner the couple breaks down when explaining the process by which clones—if they’re in love—can delay the donation process. This scene, which incorporates a very telling and haunting cutaway of an older couple staring at the teenagers, exudes a striking discomfort and intensity of feeling that’s noticeably lacking from the rest of the film.
Romanek’s signature pop aesthetic, utilized to great success in the music video format, translates banally to the big screen. If this is artistry, it’s entirely of the Oscar-baiting variety: the silky-smooth (sometimes rainy-day) suturing of scenes, the postcard-pretty exteriors against which Ruth and Tommy scream their hearts out, and one heavily symbolic shot of a dress drying on a wind-beaten clothesline—which is, I suppose, meant to tell us that the filmmakers understand the story to be about the loneliness and sadness of being un-human. If you don’t completely scoff at the filmmaker’s vision, even when Kathy explicitly lays out the theme of the story via voiceover in the last scene (it’s tempting to read embarrassment in Mulligan’s half-hearted delivery), it’s because its ambivalence isn’t exactly far from Ishiguro’s own stiff upper lip.