While more direct and clearer about its themes than the novel it is based on, “Never Let Me Go” is a subtle and sensitive movie. It is quite easy to recognize what is going on in their world, but, like the novel, the movie is not about the society but about people limited by its unsaid rules. They try, but they eventually accept what will happen to them, and, despite some flaws due to adaptation process, the movie has that harrowing feeling generated at the end of the novel. While quietly observing their life, I felt the sadness accumulated behind the screen minute by minute.
When Michael Bay’s SF action blockbuster movie “The Island”(2005) came out several years ago, Gazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful novel was immediately compared to it by Roger Ebert and others due to the similar premise of the novel(I really thanked Ebert for introducing the novel to me through his review on Bay’s movie – it was one of the best books I read in last year). In the alternative world technically more advanced than our world, there was a scientific breakthrough in the middle of the 20th century. Around the 1980s, they can cure most of incurable diseases in our world with their much developed technique, and the lifespan of human beings is extended to more than 100 years.
But there is the cost for this brave new world. Maybe it is a little bit spoiler to you if you have never heard about the film or Ishiguro’s novel, but I think you can easily guess what that breakthrough is within 10 minutes. In this world, the human cloning is easily possible; clones are grown in group, and, when the certain time comes, they are ready to donate their organs. Sometimes they survive from two or three operations, but there is the limit, and, when they are “completed”, they will give everything they have.
The familiar questions naturally arise from this premise. Can they be treated like human beings? Can they feel and think like us? Do they have the right for their life? The teachers at the Hailsham School try to be progressive on these topics. At first, the school looks like any idyllic British boarding schools we have encountered in countless books and movies. But there is always the unseen, and unspoken, gap between them and students. Some of teachers feel pity to these young clones, but they cannot change the society that does not want to go back to its medical dark age. Although teachers try to treat them as the students full of possibility, they also remind them to maintain their valuable bodies as well as possible. The children they teach are ultimately more or less than the young livestock grown in the relatively humane environment.
We observe the life of three students in Hailsham: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. The relationship between them was forged around the early years, and, even after they grow up to leave the school, the bond between them still remains as strong as before. They care about each other. They want to live with each other as long as possible. But as “the donor” or “the carer” who will be “the donor” when the time comes, all of them are aware of the inevitable fate awaiting for them. They try to ignore it, but the remaining time is getting shorter and shorter.
So they are drawn to the certain rumor roaming among clones. According to that rumor, if two clones can prove that they are in really love, they can be allowed to live a few more years. It merely means postponing the end a little even if the rumor is really true, but even a few years are precious to them now. Like the terminal patients, they are willing to try anything for more time.
However, they are stuck inside the boundary their society draws for its purpose. Although many details about human cloning are quite vague(How are they given birth to? Does a clone serve for only one receiver?), Ishiguro’s novel is the story about social human condition rather than the cautionary tale on the ramification caused by technological advance. Although they are relatively grown well compared to others outside their school, they are ultimately educated as the “special” parts of their society. From the childhood, they accept their roles, and they follow the rules without question like many clones before – they are bound to be limited in their social roles. Their story can be compared to the hero of Ishiguro’s another famous novel “Remains of the Days”, who tragically loses the only chance of happiness in his life for being dutiful to his role throughout his life.
Alex Garland’s adaptation is not perfect but mostly satisfying as a whole. The story loses some subtlety from the novel on the screen, but perhaps it cannot be avoided because of the differences between mediums. The original plot is condensed into the movie less than 2 hours. Several small good moments in the early part of the novel are deleted or shortened with diminished effect(the crucial song in the novel is not utilized well in the film), and some visible gaps in the story cannot be easily ignored.
In spite of these flaws, the film retains the essence of the novel and expresses it with the gray atmosphere and accompanying subdued performances. The child actors are good enough to hold our attention at the start, and they are convincingly connected to the adult actors(Cary Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley) later. The director Mark Romanek handles the story in restrained approach with melancholic beauty as shown in the beach scene, and he knows when it is right time to uncover emotions hidden behind characters.
Although it is a little too ambiguous to be categorized as SF, “Never Let Me Go” is an intelligent movie with poignant story about the characters who has to deal with their determined path. We see them grow, we see them aware of sex and love, and we see them in fear of being “completed”. We come to accept them as the human beings with feelings and intelligence. But their society will probably not recognize that for a long time – until it does not need them anymore due to further scientific advance. As one of South Korean critics points out in the review, we are relatively lucky to live in the society where people have already discussed about the ethics on the techniques of the future to come.