It's best if you know a thing or two about Never Let Me Go before you see it. First of all, it's based on an acclaimed 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about three kids raised in a boarding school. Second, it's something of a science-fiction story — and here comes a spoiler, so maybe skip this paragraph if these sorts of things bother you — set in a futuristic England where humans are cloned so they can become organ donors when they grow up. Because of their sacrifices, others can live to be more than a hundred.
This information helps director Mark Romanek's movie version of Ishiguro's complex novel unfold more naturally. Without it, the world Kathy (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield, who'll play Spider-Man when the franchise is rebooted in 2012), and Ruth (Carey Mulligan) inhabit comes off as one without much heart or feeling. But in truth, it's the complete opposite: It has spawned three very passionate characters whose very real feelings set the story in motion.
It starts in 1978 at the school, where the three friends are raised on a Merchant Ivory-style campus complete with ivy walls climbing the ancient buildings. It's a typical boarding-school environment we've seen countless times in films: ties for boys, skirts for girls, plenty of good manners, etc. From the start, the students are told that they're special, and keeping healthy is paramount. (Later, a grown-up Kathy, narrating the tale, refers to herself as a machine, but without a hint of regret.)
As the kids blossom from preteens to teens to young adults to adults, their lives halfway mirror the outside world. They play, they form cliques, they fall in love. But a trip to a diner one afternoon proves there's so much they don't know about real life.
In addition to its fantasy elements, Never Let Me Go is a love story between Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. By the time the children's fate is revealed, we've come to appreciate these characters and their emotions, even if they're not completely aware of their destinies.
Like many period dramas (and yes, Never Let Me Go is a period drama, albeit a most unconventional one), the film is slow-moving at times, especially during its early scenes. But once the kids grow into Knightley, Garfield, and Mulligan, it becomes a very well-acted period piece. Mulligan — who was nominated for a well-deserved Oscar for last year's An Education — is wonderful as the young woman who resigns herself to her fateful position. "I feel a great sense of pride in what we do," she says in the opening scene.
Romanek rarely builds up any sort of tension, urgency, or conflict. That has somewhat to do with the fact that there isn't much of it in the original story. There's a subplot involving a mythical woman who can grant reprieves to special couples, but you can figure out how that will end. Never Let Me Go is a smart, fascinating, and methodical story, and the movie plays at its orderly pace. It's a subtle work (no uprisings or daring escapes here), but it's also a lingering one. You may not empathize with the ill-fated characters, but you'll certainly feel for them.
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