Watching Never Let Me Go is like walking through a hall of mirrors. It’s hardly the stuff of amusement parks, though. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Booker Prize-nominated novel, the film charts the lives of three “donors” (clones created to provide replacement organs), from their idyllic school days at Hailsham to their enlistment as “donors.” As the protagonist Kathy H. replays each memory, it suddenly reveals (in Ishiguro’s words) “something else, something troubling and strange.”
This haunting retelling succeeds mainly because the valiant cast breathes new life into Ishiguro’s prose. Heartbreak begins when Kathy (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) utters the first line, “My name is Kathy H…” She merely introduces herself, but her sorrow and apprehension betray her steeled demeanour as she watches her old friend Tommy (Andrew Garfield) begin his final donation. The young Hailsham cast (Isobel Meikle as young Kathy, Ella Purnell as young Ruth and Charlie Rowe as young Tommy) also deserves an honourable mention. Through deft gestures such as a mutual exchange of glances during a film screening — they effectively tell the tale of Kathy and Tommy’s love and Ruth’s jealousy.
The struggle to express the inexpressible constantly confounds the characters. This is of course hardly surprising for a film that utilises cloning ethics as a vehicle to prod the grey areas of what it means to be human. While the scenes are hardly as lush and striking as James Ivory’s screen adaptation of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, director Mark Romanek evokes a weighty mournfulness by populating the film with green-grey silent scenes.
The pervasive sorrow is particularly heightened when the clones flail as they encounter difficult truths, but ultimately have to learn to accept their short and possibly less than humane paths. Throughout the show, the clones grapple with the question of why there was such a strong emphasis on producing quality art work while they were at Hailsham. Eventually, they posit that the art work is a means of looking into the souls of Hailsham students, to determine if they are capable of being in love, so that couples “properly in love” can obtain a donation deferral. Ruth (Keira Knightley) acts upon this theory, and tries to help Kathy and Tommy obtain a deferral so as to seek their forgiveness. Much to Kathy and Tommy’s anger, Ruth confesses that she kept them apart because she was “afraid of being alone.” The sight of the trio cross-legged amidst windswept grasses, confronting death (the “completion” of their donation cycles), betrayal and despair, arguably ranks among the film’s most poignant moments.
The clones continue to prove that they are nothing short of fully human, as they deal with their own self-worth and learn to acquiesce, if not accept their destinies. After Kathy and Tommy finally learn that deferrals are merely fiction, Kathy is briefly startled when the usually mumbling, gentle Tommy lapses into his childhood rages in later life. As a child, he was often provoked into violence (he hits Kathy, when she tries to calm him down) by the other boys at Hailsham football games. Tommy and Kathy, huddled in the middle of the road amidst a downpour, mourn the time they never spent together. The unmistakable air of tragedy calls to mind Tommy’s idea that he and Kathy are “these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can… but in the end it’s just too much … they’ve got to let go”.
The mystery of the artwork is ultimately solved when Kathy and Tommy learn from their old headmistress Miss Emily that instead of looking into their souls, they have to prove that they have souls at all. This revelation raises further problems. If the clones had souls, and were therefore human, should they be shielded from the reality of their life’s purpose so that they can briefly enjoy their lives? Is it cruel for people to demand organs from clones, when the clones are human and treated far worse?
Letting go is never easy. At the film’s conclusion, Kathy drives through the country, and arrives at a field bordered by a fence containing ragged flags flailing in the wind. She has come to a corner in Norfolk, the “land of lost things” of her childhood, where anything she has lost can be found. When she envisions Tommy running towards her, it is perhaps timely to ask if she can ever let go. But as the rest of the film suggests, the answer lies in the looking glass.