Tragic Youths Reach for Life Beyond Their Grasp
By Elaine Teng ’12, Editor-In-Chief
At first, it sounds like the perfect world: a world without disease, where cancer and AIDS are erased, as harmless as the common cold; a world in which parents, friends and lovers are not lost in a painful spiral towards death.

But at what cost?

That is exactly the question that “Never Let Me Go,” based on British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, seeks to explore. The story follows three friends, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), and is recounted by Kathy in three parts, beginning with their childhood at a boarding school in an idyllic, forgotten corner of England. As the details of the school unfold, however, we realize that despite the beauty of the fields and the laughter of the children, this is no normal school. The children are constantly reminded of the necessity of keeping their bodies healthy, and check in every day by brushing their wrists against a card reader. This is because they are not merely children. They are donors — clones bred and cultivated to harvest organs that will save millions around the world, a world that, for its own convenience, has turned its back on these donors’ claims to life and humanity.

As Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow up, go through the steps that we all follow but towards an altogether different fate, we begin to realize that they are, in fact, just as human as those they save. One of the strengths of Ishiguro’s novel is the slow journey towards discovery the reader shares with the children, a quality that transfers to the silver screen, though perhaps not quite as effectively. As the children slowly piece together the puzzle of who and what they are, the horror and tragedy of the situation slowly sink in as we realize just how cruel it is to create a life in order to take it away.

“Never Let Me Go” operates on a science fiction premise, but is in no way a science fiction story. As it follows the friendships, romances and betrayals that arise within the trio, it becomes instead a story of human emotions and relationships, of the subtleties a single look may carry, of the fears and desires that govern our actions. The young British actors pull it off well, with Mulligan capable of conveying more emotional weight in a glance than many do over the course of a film. Garfield, in what looks to be his breakout year, delivers a performance to rival his more acclaimed one in “The Social Network.” With all the boyish vulnerability that made him so pitiable in the Facebook film, Garfield brings Tommy’s innocence to the fore, making his eventual disillusionment all the more jagged and cutting.

As the temperamental obstacle keeping the soulmates apart, Knightley has found a role that fits her well, and though she overacts in the first two sections, she comes to match her peers in intensity in the final act. Praise must also be given to the child actors who dominate the first third of the film. All uncannily similar to their older counterparts, the three do an impressive job of conveying the film’s muted emotions on their young faces.

It is this muted tone that becomes a double-edged sword for “Never Let Me Go” and its director, Mark Romanek, whose previous movie “One Hour Photo” was also an exercise in distance and silence. For some, this emotional detachment may be off-putting, rendering a tragic, romantic tale cold and inaccessible. However, the low-key approach, complemented by beautiful, subdued cinematography and a haunting score that will surely both be in the hunt for Oscar glory, captures the buried anguish and the sense of futility central to the story. The first two parts, shot in grays and browns, do indeed leave you wanting more, but they become a groundswell of stifled emotion that bursts through in the final section and renders the catharsis even more satisfying.

A meditative, quiet film, “Never Let Me Go” is much more than a dystopian vision of the future, but a film that questions what it means to be human and captures a desire for freedom we all feel in some way. Watching Kathy and Tommy run towards what they know to be a dead end, if only to run, watching them forced to let each other go, we get a sense of our own struggle for understanding, escape and connection. That the donors never even question the fairness or inevitability of their own fate and purpose only heightens the heartbreak. The film may not be as tragically beautiful, nor as beautifully tragic, as the novel, but it captures just enough of the heartache, the sweetness and the pain, to make it worth your while.

Issue 06, Submitted 2010-10-20 01:12:26