Music-video director Mark Romanek’s second feature (after 2002’s One-Hour Photo) is flat, depressing, and dead on arrival. Novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach) adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a trio of lifelong friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley. The film is set in an alternate England that, despite a few tantalising Ballardian echoes in a few architectural establishing shots peppered throughout, resembles nothing so much as the late-1930s familiar from Atonement and other recent Merchant-Ivory approximations. (Not too surprising given that Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day.)
It opens in the present day, but the bulk of the story is told in flashback to the characters’ childhood and adolescence. In this dystopia, clones are bred for the express purpose of being harvested, in the prime of their lives, for their organs; certain of them are allowed to delay the harvesting process a smidgen by becoming ‘carers,’ people chosen to look after fellow donors until “completion,” as death is euphemistically known in their world. Our trio are three such clones; Kathy chooses to be a carer in order to see Tommy shuffle off this slippery, semi-mortal coil. (Don’t worry, that wasn’t a spoiler: it’s where the film starts.)
Something of a love triangle forms between the three as they weigh their options in the face of their impending “completion.” Tommy and Kathy explore a rumour that if two clones are in love, and can “prove it,” they’re allowed a couple of years together before being thrust into the painful slow dance with death that awaits them. (I haven’t read the novel, but apparently in it Kathy refers multiple times to the fact that the clones are sterile, which would render this subplot null and void.)
The cinematography by Adam Kimmel (Spike Jonze’s I’m Here) is impressive—the film certainly looks beautiful, all cold blues, soft clay colours and a preponderance of hunter green—but coupled with the generally dour tone of the script, fails to bring any of the characters to… uh, life. A song called (what else?) “Never Let Me Go” figures prominently in the sound track, but outside that, the film’s score, by the usually interesting Rachel Portman, is unremarkable. What we’re given here is a sour, overly nostalgic very English film, with little to no emotional resonance. Like the operating-room glass partition that separates Kathy from Tommy in the bookend deathbed scene, it’s impossible to feel for these characters; the film is as soulless as the “poor creatures” who inhabit it.
Never Let Me Go is in cinemas today.