Last week I saw the film Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek), based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The dystopian story has a fairly straightforward plot: in 1952, a medical breakthrough allowed for humans to live past 100 years. In order to beat cancer and disease, vital organs are harvested from ‘duplicates’ (read: clones), who appear as ordinary and similar to you and me.
The film follows three such duplicates—though you do not know this at first introduction—from childhood at their special school Hailsham, to young adulthood, and finally to their ‘completion’, the period around their late-20s when they start their donations. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley respectively) form a love triangle, though we always know that Kathy and Tommy are soulmates, and Ruth’s intervention seems rather pointless. Her whole character feels pointless, as her friendship with Kathy never comes across as genuine. If she is meant to serve as Kathy’s foil, the film does a poor job of following through since she and Tommy break up two-thirds through the film, and her final ‘good deed’ before death is to reunite Kathy and Tommy, accompanied by a pitiful, somewhat hollow apology for splitting them apart so many years ago.
The biggest complaint I have against Never Let Me Go is the complete and utter lack of agency. By travelling with these three characters, it is obvious we are meant to care for them—to see that they do indeed have souls and the capacity to love, feel pain, and the rest. They are not robots, as Society would like to believe them to be. The story is portrayed in such a way that seeps injustice; their fate does not seem fair.
So it’s an odd choice for everyone involved in this alternate, dystopian reality to never question the system. No one even suggests to question the political and authoritative structures that control their lives. (The small statement towards the end by their old headmistress is feeble at best and does not upset the status quo.) The result is a very fatalistic perspective. Perhaps that is what Romanek desired to present. I, however, cannot separate my activism from storytelling; I find acceptance of ‘injustice’ or potential ‘unethical treatment’ to be disturbing. What are we supposed to take away from this film? That we all, at some point, die and wish we had more time? (The sentiment expressed to us at the film’s close.)
Moreover, a refusal to engage with the ethics at hand is not some tragic, hands-off, artful approach. It is a cop out. That is my opinion, and feel free to disagree with me. I believe that if you write a story that tackles contemporary ethical issues (e.g. cloning, stem-cell research, organ harvesting, etc.) you have a responsibility to explore the ramifications and intricacies of those issues.
And lastly the story itself lacked ingenuity and energy. Aside from the love complications, the story did not really go anywhere. There are so many ways Never Let Me Go could have been more provocative, innovative, and emotionally compelling. For example, we’re told that all duplicates are modelled on society’s ‘trash’—junkies, prostitutes, alcoholics et cetera. How would the story unfold if Kathy found her ‘original’ and approached her? The questions about whether these duplicates have souls could take a whole other dimension—and the originals would then be faced with the ethical implications of using human clones merely for organ harvesting.
Unfortunately we’re left with a film that—in my opinion—tries too hard in its attempts to be heartbreaking, relying on pathos and saccharine exchanges. The acting performances were satisfactory, but none garnered my admiration. Never Let Me Go already feels past its time and without anything to say—a soulless venture. But like I said, watch and make your own conclusions.