SYNOPSIS Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, it’s about a group of clones (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) who are pupils in a special school for people whose body parts will be harvested by the time they are thirty. They are electronically tagged so there appears to be no escape. A teacher (Sally Hawkins) tells the pupils of their fate for which she is removed by the head teacher (Charlotte Rampling). Each clone will suffer three surgical removals called ‘donations’ and with the third comes ‘completion’ ( a euphemism for death). Carey Mulligan acquires the role of a ‘carer’ who looks after the clones as a sort of counsellor. Knightley and Garfield are lovers but Knightley later confesses that Mulligan and Garfield were really meant for each other. Mulligan felt excluded and jealous. Knightley is ‘completed’, so Mulligan and Garfield speak to the art teacher who visits their school to find out their spiritual status (i.e. if they merit the avoidance of ‘completion’ ).
REVIEW This is ostensibly a sci-fi film, but it doesn’t really look like one, but then glass domes and boiler suits do not really make convincing sci-fi either. Isn’t the best sci-fi simply a plausible extrapolation from present concerns? In this respect this is a plausible dystopia rather like The Handmaid’s Tale. If one compare’s it with the only Ishiguro I’ve read and watched on film (i.e. Remains of the Day), then it’s a very English setting. Just like Remains of the Day, it’s the deceptively genteel environment for evil. In Remains the servant’s boss is chatting with Nazis, and in Never Let Me Go it’s the setting for industrial murder. Kazuo Ishiguro, like Joseph Conrad, seems more English than the English. Like the Anthony Hopkins butler in Remains, there is the same uncomplaining acceptance of authoritarian outrage, all the more horrifying for its workaday stoicism and zombified mindlessness. Hopkins’ butler in Remains has had the humanity leeched out of him, he can only serve and never give because he is too emotionally terrified to do so. The victims in Never Let Me Go rage against their fate, but to no avail, so at least there is some resistance, but in both books and films there is the common thread of sacrifice and the bland acceptance of the horrors of it.
Britain in this film is a sort of hellishly plausible twentieth century with a few differences, rather Pullman’s Golden Compass, but not so exotic. This is a deferential society and these pupils are brought up on some sort of public school ethos, which gives the story a satirical edge whether intended or not. We see servile Brits going about their business, self servingly accepting the obscene harvesting that is done on their behalf: didn’t all these upper class Bloomsbury types and New Statesman socialists accept the need for forced sterilization? One film critic has called this a parable, but I wonder how. A parable is a short story with a moral point, here the point is not even made but it doesn’t have to be. Killing people for the benefit of other people is beyond question utterly wrong. It doesn’t even begin to touch on the relative merits of deontological versus utilitarian arguments. If there is a parable, it’s about our treatment of animals, so a vegetarian could find a lot here apposite to their case.
The affair between the three is understated and tastefully British. I half expected schoolkids in schoolcaps and uniforms and a young Haley Mills from Whistle Down the Wind, to walk on to the set, it touches a nostalgic nerve. There is a kind of innocence about their relationship that’s quite touching. It brings out the loneliness of sexual jealousy and the search for identity in a world which cruelly denies them any proper human status. Mulligan’s character is painfully good to the point of saintliness and I expected some sort of swift savagery to be run past us, but with a deceptive gentleness from Mulligan it never came. The scenes from the countryside as the horrible fate closes in reminds me of those luscious rural scenes in Shadowlands about C.S. Lewis.
The idea of death imposed on young people was used in the 70’s sci-fi films Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, but we are allowed no exotically artificial distance in this film. I know Ishiguro is fascinated by British self abasement and masochistic acceptance of arrogant authority, but I cannot believe that self conscious fully human clones could accept their fate, or that Brits could stand by to let it happen. This is a central implausibility in the book and film. Still, very absorbing.