Sunday, November 27, 2011


Never Let Me Go is based on the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. It tells the story of three young people -- Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy -- who grow up together at a boarding school called Hailsham House in the English countryside. They have no families, nor do they have any exposure to the outside world. They are clones, bred for a single purpose: to provide organs to extend the lives of the natural-born population. As a result, they themselves live haplessly short lives, few of them living past their mid-twenties.

While it has a decidedly sci-fi slant to its premise, Never Let Me Go functions as a character study as much as a dystopian cautionary tale. As adults, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are beautifully embodied by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield respectively. Each character is unique in the way in which they deal with their lot in life. And it is a great credit to the actors that each one is relatable.

Kathy, our protagonist, reminds us of ourselves in many ways: she makes the best of her life, even as she can't always make sense of it. We follow her through all stages of her life as she tries to learn herself and unfurl the mysteries of those around her, Ruth and Tommy in particular. Her problems, while they are undeniably fantastic compared to our own, and magnified due to the abbreviated nature of her life, resonate with us because we have felt all of the same feelings.

Ruth makes for a very interesting foil to Kathy. They have many of the same questions, and many of the same hopes and dreams, but they carry out their lives in very different ways. Ruth gives into that urge which we all have that pushes us to forsake others and only look after our own happiness. Much like the society in the story, which cares not for the organ "donors," Ruth decides early on that she must wrap herself in herself if she is to achieve happiness and avoid suffering, which in her case is the suffering that comes with being alone. That all-too-familiar fear of being alone is something that we all live with and must resist, as it tempts us to be ungrateful for the many good things in our lives and leads us down a path to disaster, as the film shows.

In my opinion, Keira Knightley gives the strongest performance in the film. Ruth is a far cry from her usual roles: we are used to rooting for Ms. Knightley, but Ruth is a far more polarizing character. Ms. Knightley brings to Ruth a convincing air of superiority that helps us understand why Kathy is envious of her, and she is equally effective in the scenes where Ruth's facade is dropped. In these moments, Ruth's desperation is truly unnerving. Additionally, Ruth's third "donation" is one of the most haunting scenes of the entire film. The way the doctors handle her and the other donors like livestock makes for some disturbing imagery, and makes us consider how cold we can be if permitted.

Tommy is an awkward but relentlessly cheerful young man who prides himself on being a good donor. But it is through his story that we most clearly perceive the movie's message about the importance of living life to the fullest. The movie deals openly with our ability to ignore injustice, and Tommy's character arc deals with the other side of that coin: our propensity to create hopes and believe hearsay if it will distract us from the meanness of our fate. However, when we distract ourselves from reality we blunt our ability to live the type of life that will truly make us happy. As he sees the end of his life rapidly approaching, Tommy is filled with emotion and screams out in agony. He finally unleashes his rage about his fate, and we can venture a guess that he is also railing against his own role in limiting the amount and quality of his time with those whom he loves.

The message of the movie is neatly embodied in its title. The film implores its audience to hold on to the things and the people they love in the limited time they have. The message is passed on through the performances, and subtly helped along by a sharp score from Academy Award winner Rachel Portman. Additionally, some of the cinematography (especially later in the film) is breathtaking, a fact which -- given that director Mark Romanek cut his teeth in the world of music videos -- is unsurprising but no less pleasant as a result.

All of our lives are precious, and all of our lives must end. To deny the beauty of another's life imperils one's own -- not in the literal sense, but in the more important sense that it removes from our lives so much richness and introduces indelible impurities that render them less worthy of being lived. We all have cowardly urges to try and enhance our lives at the expense of others. But to do so misses the point of life completely, and such attempts are ultimately doomed to fail. As Hailsham's headmistress tells Kathy and Tommy, "There are no deferrals. There never have been." Never Let Me Go is a film that poses the deepest of questions: How are we to spend the limited amount of time that is given to us? It is a film that attempts to show the preciousness, beauty, and ultimately the fragility of this human experience that we all share. And it succeeds. This is what makes it an exceptional film.

I give it a 9 out of 10.

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