It’s hard to explain Never Let Me Go. It’s set in an alternative world to 20th century Britain; the main differences of which become the crux of the plot and the heart of the story. Therefore it would be necessary to reveal these differences to you to give this review some context. But the problem is that these differences are kept from you at the beginning and one of the great pleasures to be had from this film are discovering them throughout. Taking in the little drips of information and using your own mind to piece them together, creating context for the characters behaviour, building the world around them inside your own head.
So I’ll try to be brief. At it’s simplest, it is the story of a love triangle between Tommy, a troubled young boy who has a problem with emotional outbursts; Cathy, a girl who takes pity on Tommy; and Ruth, Cathy’s more confident best friend who starts a long term relationship with Tommy. The film follows them through their school years and into their mid 20’s as they have to cope with loss, heartbreak and betrayal. Sounds like a romantic melodrama doesn’t it? Well I suppose in a way it is, but there is also the spectre of Science Fiction hovering over this tale. Themes such as the worth of human life, the existence of the soul, free will and the very definition what it is to be human are prevalent throughout.
The whole film is carried with a stillness and a quiet that is impressively pulled off for a director mostly known for making misic videos for bands like Weezer and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Every scene is like a deep breathing exercise; slowly, it draws you in and slowly, it takes you out. The lighting is always soft and the colour palate is always neutral, allowing the film to express itself in much the same way the characters do, muted, reserved and never allowing the bubbling undercurrent to make an appearance on the surface
Speaking of the characters, the success of the film pretty much relies on them. This is an actor lead film no doubt about it. If the setting is the heart of the story then the three leads are the soul. The child actors are great but the best performances are the adults. Each of them brings a quiet understatement to their roles; while the children are every bit like we would expect them to be the adults are no different from their juvenile counterparts. They have a child like innocence that immediately draws sympathy. These are children who are never allowed to grow up; like a tragic parody of the Peter Pan fable, they lead adolescent existences in fully grown bodies. So isolated from the outside world are they that they are never truly sure how to interact with each other, never taught what it is to be grown up; the most basic of adult instincts and urges are confusing to them. It is in their nature to be ashamed of vice, so they feel they are not allowed to discuss them, even with each other.
Despite the average age of the cast being twenty-six they are deeply convincing as these deprived adults, Keria Knightly has a way of talking as if everything she says is designed to attract as much attention as possible, like so many fourteen year olds; Carey Mulligan is the big sister who always looks burdened, like she was forced to grow up well before her time, despite being twenty-five; and Andrew Garfield (who for my money is the stand out of the film) is fantastic as a boy who constantly looks like he is out of place, weary of the world around him, afraid to speak up and let his voice be heard. They all look so naive in a world of harsh realities, knowing a little bit of everything but understanding nothing. Sheltered from the real world an deprived of all its experiences, they never once look or act like normal well adjusted human beings.
While the film does have its flaws, (from the maddening way that despite their anger they take no action to avert their destinies, to the fact that some of the information is held back from the audience so well, that when it is revealed it fails to make sense) these can easily be overlooked. While the film may be depressing, many of the most thought provoking are. Never Let Me Go succeeds as a heartbreaking portrayal of life cut off from the rest of the world. Of love, of loss, of childhood and innocence. It is a striking look at how much life is worth, especially when it is short.