Never Let Me Gorecommended viewing

Lives of quiet desperation
Mark Romanek
Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
The Setup: 
Three clones deal with the fact that there is no meaning to their lives.

This is obviously the second movie inspired by Parts: The Clonus Horror [the first being The Island], yet when I look up both the film and novel... where is the mention of this? Are we going to try to pretend like this is an original idea because it's highbrow, when we feel comfortable dragging The Island through the muck because it's trash? I haven't done enough investigation to be sure, but let's just say I hope Robert Fiveson, writer-director of Clonus, got a big fat check, or if not, is suing the makers of this film, just as he successfully made a claim against the Bay film.

So we have an opening title that a medical technology [which we know will be cloning] was developed in the late 50s, and by the 60s human life expectancy had passed 100. We are introduced, via voice-over, to Kathy, played by Carey Mulligan of An Education, in her younger incarnation, with her schoolmates Ruth and Tommy, at British boarding school Hailsham. We see Charlotte Rampling as Madame telling the kids that keeping themselves healthy is of paramount importance. We learn that the kids think something terrible will happen to them should they step outside the school's gates. Tommy is outcast by his male schoolmates, so Kathy makes friends with him. They are all encouraged to make art, some of which is taken away to the mysterious "gallery." At a certain point a new attendant at the school, Miss Emily, tells them the truth: They are clones raised for the sole purpose of organ harvesting. When they reach maturity they will start having organs pulled out, and eventually they will die. If you're seeing this movie, you probably know that going in, making little touches like the kids getting so excited over a shipment of new toys--new to them, that is, since they're all broken and used and worn and crappy--quietly affecting.

The next section of the film occurs when our group is eighteen and moves out of Hailsham into "cottages." It's is now that we realize there are many different schools and countrywide cottages raising clones. One of the quiet little evocative details is a van with a logo for the program, the banality of which implies the vastness of this program, and makes you picture everyday scenes such as seeing a van like this pass one on the highway and thinking "Oh, there go some clones," the way you might think about a bus of prisoners or learning disabled. Which, I would say, is what makes this successful science fiction--that it inspires those thoughts and makes one reflect on our own times in that way.

But I digress! Our trio moves into the cottages, where we learn that Tommy and Ruth have ended up together, casting Kathy into the role of "good friend." In here is a bunch of material around sex and romance, with our clones wondering what to do with their bodies and what is happening to them. You'll notice that Ruth has a slightly superior, mocking quality toward Kathy around her relationship with Tommy. In here one of the kids thinks they saw Ruth's original--the person she was cloned from--and they go to find her. Realizing it's not her, Ruth says that the people they have been cloned from are criminals and low-lifes. The other couple they meet at the cottages ask them if they've heard about the "deferrals" a couple can get if they prove that they're really in love. Tommy figures that must have been what all the artwork for the gallery was for--to prove the worth of their individuality, so they can prove that they're really in love.

There is a third section, a few years later, that I'll leave for you to discover. There were moments in here where me and my friend thought maybe there wasn't ultimately going to be that much to this movie, but a new story thread toward the end satisfyingly gives shape to everything and lends an extra sheen of thoughtfulness to all that has come before. Also on the menu are additional banal details that evoke the quiet pathos of what is happening here.

One late point is that the school made measures to prove to the outside world that the clones were people, and had souls--but no one wanted to listen. The public doesn't want to go back to the days where people died of lung or breast cancer, so they just bury their heads and don't concern themselves about the clones at all. The last line of the film finds one of the clones asking if regular people live lives where they don't understand what they've been through, or feel like they've had enough time.

Which brings us back to what makes this successful science fiction--because it is about the lives we lead now and makes us think about them. The clones are forced to be aware of the shortness and ultimate pointlessness of their lives, which causes us to relect on how our lives are also short and [some might argue] pointless, but we push away those thoughts because we don't HAVE to think them. The brilliantly-conceived [or gently borrowed] concept here works beautifully in all sorts of ways to make us reflect on questions about what it means to live and to experience life, love, and everyday sensations. And the many little events and twists of the film are all carefully focused on making us reflect on these different aspects.

It helps that the performances are all perfectly modulated. Mulligan again is completely charming and empathetic, and doesn't strike a false note. One wants to dislike Keira Knightly because of those hideous Pirates of the Caribbean movies and crap like Domino and such, but the fact is that she's really good. Turns out that somewhat superior attitude she was taking toward Kathy in the middle section was all part of the overall story and fits perfectly in when you see the overall arc. Andrew Garfield is also quite good. The direction has a slow, meditative quality that works well, remaining cool to the emotional aspects in a way that only heightens them. Some critics have found the film cold and aloof... and I might respond "Well, some people could be a little more attentive, now, and back in their college literature classes." Because the distant, unemotional tone of the film is there in service of the overall pathos, letting affecting details accumulate in the viewer's mind until the entire thing begins overflowing with emotion. Furthermore, it is important for the tone to pull back and remain stationed toward the objective, the better for these thoughts and feelings to be generated by the attentive viewer, rather than told and sold to you by an overbearing style.

So there you go, an excellent and affecting little film about nothing less than the meaning of life, that does what the best science fiction does in getting us to use this tale as a springboard to reflect on the meaning of our own lives.

Should you watch it: 

If you're a fan of thoughtful, meditative sci-fi, you sure should.


This was one amazing movie: quiet story quietly told, but oh what a punch. I kind of use it as a test for the new people I meet : "How did you like Never Let Me Go?" (or before that film, this French movie called "An Affair of Love" in English, and "Une Affaire Pornographique" in French, with Nathalie Baye) To me, the story resonates on so many human levels, and the acting and art department work are superb too. Call me sappy, but the people who cried by the end of Never Let Me Go, these people I don't want to let go of. (Ask my current boyfriend!) Thank you for your fine review of it.

Agreed, I really liked this film. I later read the novel and I actually think the film might work better. The novel is a SLOW reveal, and... it's hard to know how I would have reacted had I already known the secret. In the film, I think it helps to actually SEE the school and their toy box, etc. I'll have to check out your other few "test" movies, haha.