Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010, directed by Mark Romanek)

This may have been the most exceptionally brilliant failure of a movie I have ever seen.

There's no way to write this review without including massive spoilers, so let's just get them out of the way. Never Let Me Go envisions a world in which cloning was developed in the '50s, for the purpose of harvesting replacement organs. The film follows one clone, Kathy, and her two childhood friends Tommy and Ruth as they grow up in the '70s English countryside and then try to make their way in the world, while knowing all the while that their time is painfully short. It's a haunting, beautiful, melancholy film, filled with spectacular cinematography and some damn good performances from Andrew Garfield and Tommy and Carey Mulligan as Kathy...

...and it's all total bollocks.

True science fiction depends on one thing above all: plausibility. Whatever crazy ideas are getting thrown around in the plot, the world around that plot has to feel plausible for it to work. If you can capture that feeling, you can get away with almost anything. Look at the two best recent examples of cinema spec fic, Children of Men and District 9. Children of Men is built on a fairly implausible plot idea (mysterious mass incurable sterility), but the world it constructs around that idea is so devastatingly believable that you can't help but fall in line and go where it takes you. Ditto District 9. Say what you want about the likelihood of a damaged alien spacecraft parking itself above Johannesburg, but if it did is an internment ghetto for the aliens so far-fetched?

Never Let Me Go is in many ways the complete opposite of those films. The film is about the characters, not the world around them, but in not even concerning itself with the plausibility of that world the movie sabotages itself fatally.

Think about it for a second: clones are allowed to grow into adulthood, in order to be cut up for parts. That's just monstrous and evil, but the world they live in doesn't seem to have wrestled with the ethics of that plan in any meaningful way. For Goddess' sake, in our world aborting unborn fetuses, fetuses which lack names or faces or personalities, draws angry protests and even acts of terrorism. And yet there's no evidence in Never Let Me Go that there have been any real complaints at all over the clones, or what happens to them, beyond some academic disagreements. Fully formed adults get gutted so that 'real' people can live a little longer, and no one cares? No one protests their treatment? PETA will bathe someone in red paint for wearing fur, but no one will do the same to someone with a clone's liver? I call bullshit.

And what about the clones themselves? How can the rate of suicide and self-destructive behaviors among them not be through the roof, with nothing to live for except prolonging someone else's life? And yet they just seem to blithely go about their business, even knowing the truth. Again, I call bullshit.

And why are they even allowed to roam free? Is no one concerned that they might catch a disease or get hit by a car? If they are not "real" people, if they are merely valuable medical property, why give them a life at all? Why risk it?

By blinding itself to the ethics of the world it's creating, Never Let Me Go accidentally works even harder to undermine itself. We never meet any of the organ recipients. The other side of the equation -- what's being bought with the lives of these young people -- is never presented at all. So as a viewer, there are no hard choices to make about what's "right". Three kids you come to know are going to have their internal organs ripped out and given to random nameless other people, and the movie provides you with no outlet to express or live through your anger and disgust at that state of affairs. Those emotions simply don't get acknowledged in the movie at all.

None of it makes any sense, because no one thought about any of that before making the damn movie. I appreciate that it isn't supposed to be about those things, that it's focused exclusively on the three friends, but even if you don't directly address those issues in the movie you still have to know what the issues are to make the world work. You can't bury your head in the sand and pretend that they don't exist. Charlotte Rampling's headmistress character, towards the end of the film, inadvertently spills the beans to the audience. "We were looking for answers to questions no one wanted to ask", she says to Kathy and Tommy, but the brains behind Never Let Me Go didn't even seem to realize that there were questions to ask at all.

Really, I can't even in good conscience call the movie science fiction. It's science fantasy, only in this case the 'fantasy' part is wistful doomed romance instead of grand space opera. I suppose you could say I was just expecting a different movie than the one I got, but I don't see how you could possibly avoid expecting that different movie. The characters, the set-up... they all demand something that the movie refuses to provide.

In many ways this is the same basic complaint I have about Matt Reeves' Let Me In. Both Reeves and Romanek try to pretend that tough moral questions simply don't exist in their dojos, and in doing so both rob their movies of a power that their source materials possessed in abundance.

If Never Let Me Go weren't such a good, even great, film in almost every other respect (Keira Knightley's Ruth is a weak link acting-wise) I'd just chalk that cowardice (and yes, I can't think of any other way to describe it but cowardice) up to incompetence, and say it was a bad movie.

But it's not a bad movie. It's very nearly a great movie, just one that misses being great by as wide a gulf as is possible.

And the tragedy of that missed opportunity, moreso that the melancholy tone that hangs over the sad, short lives of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, is what clung to me when I left the theater.

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