Never Let Me Go is adapted from a book that I have not read. So if you are looking for a book to film comparison, sorry, I can’t give you that—all I can judge is the story as presented in the movie. And while I walked out of this film overwhelmed by emotion and feeling like it had been a good movie, after a day or so to think about it more rationally I came down on the side of disappointing. Yes. This was a disappointing movie; not bad, but not as good as it so obviously could have been. I don’t know, however, whether it was a flaw in the story of the book or merely how it was presented here.
This was very subtle science fiction: children are raised in a secluded school in order to donate organs once they are grown—organs that enable “real” people to attain a life expectancy of well over 100. That’s merely backdrop; the story is about three students there, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, and their journey into adulthood, love, and ultimately “completion.”
So far so good, but for me the problem arose with the character of Tommy. (Spoilers throughout this paragraph, though I don’t know that this is the sort of movie where that matters; you know the end in the first scene.) Kathy has always loved Tommy, and at one point when they were children he seemed to start seeing her that way, only to get involved with Ruth, instead, and stay involved with her until they graduate and Kathy drifts away from them. Nearly ten years later, Kathy sees Ruth again when she is obviously about to “complete,” and Ruth sets out to right what she perceives as her cruelest action: keeping Tommy and Kathy from true love with each other all those years ago. And that is where it fell apart for me. That explanation for why Tommy and Kathy were never together, and why they only get a few weeks before his third donation—that Ruth had kept them apart and then Ruth shoves them together—makes him seem weak. Weak of character, weak of mind, weak of will. The only reason I had any interest in him is because Kathy loved him, but he didn’t really seem all that worthy of her devotion.
Maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe it’s making the point that love is not something to be deserved. But even the one moment I cared about his pain (as opposed to Kathy’s), when he is screaming his anguish at not having more time to the sky, as he had used to scream as a child, there was also a sense that he had brought himself to that. He had made those choices. He had not known his own mind well enough, or feared rejection too much, or a dozen other reasons why, but it was not fate that separated them but his choices. And that made the scenario seem…less tragic. Not quite as satisfying in a Romantic sense, as if it had been circumstances beyond their control separating them. Maybe it makes it a more real-life kind of tragedy, but if you’re going to base a story on the tragedy of loving and losing then why undercut it by making one of the characters someone it’s hard to feel sympathy for? Plus we’re never really sure if Tommy actually loves Kathy, or if he just wants more time and is holding out hope that he can get his last donation deferred because of “loving” her. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps he’s screaming not because he wants more time with Kathy, but simply more time.
Whatever the case, he did not create a Joel to Kathy’s Clementine to make a love story of the caliber of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The casting of Ruth and Kathy was excellent; Carey Mulligan was sweet, caring, gentle, vulnerable…all the things someone as kind and loving as she was should exude. And Keira Knightly made a great Ruth—I’m not particularly keen on her, because she seems sulky and wan all the time, but as catty bitch Ruth that worked quite well. Andrew Garfield as Tommy was problematic; his acting may have been fine, and the scripted character one I wouldn’t have liked no matter who played the part, or Garfield may have been part of why I didn’t care about him…I couldn’t tell if I’d have liked anyone else any better. The children were all really great, and set the tone and character for each of the three adults flawlessly.
Filming-wise, the movie is easy to watch, with a few very beautiful moments. The story unfolds in a way that does not attempt to hide the situation or avoid the inevitable conclusion: you know from the first scene as Kathy begins to narrate back through time, what the ending is. And as you watch it, it will nonetheless gouge at your heart—maybe more so for knowing what is to come. Like I said, I walked out overwhelmed by emotion; in the moment the ending is tragic, horrific, beautiful. It’s only when you think about it later that things seem tarnished.
I think this is a movie that is well worth watching, but I had really high hopes for it and they were not quite met. If you’re thinking this will be a science fiction-y SF movie, you’ll be disappointed; the SF aspect pervades every scene but is never there in front of you. My verdict is to see it cautiously. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find more in Tommy or the situation than I did to carry you through.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.