Perhaps a society truly becomes lost when it doesn't know how lost it is. This is the eerie suggestion put forward by Never Let Me Go, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The alternative Britain that the story portrays isn't a typical rainy dystopia. Instead it's an apparently tranquil, progressive world where tedious paperwork and restrained euphemisms conceal the horror beneath: where one group of people is systematically sacrificed to meet the needs of the rest. It's a world where the right questions are no longer asked.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) have an idyllic childhood. Growing up at Hailsham boarding school, their lives are barely even marred when they are told of a dark fate awaiting them in early adulthood. Far more real are the everyday concerns of friendship, and the unspoken love triangle already forming between them. But as the years pass, their grim destiny looms ever closer. Will they try to escape it, or even learn to seize upon the short time that they have?
Keira Knightley tells of how a friend urged her to read the book, saying that it defines our generation. The actress laughs this off as "a bleak thought". But is it so far from the truth? The children of the last few decades have grown up in a society which is losing its grip on absolutes. Audiences may be shocked by the moral norms accepted by the world of Never Let Me Go, but the film is a stark warning to check the moral blind spots of our own age. History demonstrates how easily evil can come to be called necessary, normal, and even good.
Accustomed as we are to seeing heroes battle against cruel systems, it is almost incomprehensible to us that these characters don't fight back. Even Tommy, the most hopeful of the trio, doesn't get beyond the prospect of being granted a few more years. His question is never one of reprieve, only deferral. It simply never enters his mind that his fate is brutally unjust, because his highest authority is the society that has bred him. There is no voice assuring him that, despite what he might have been told, he is a precious individual with a soul.
To the viewer, nothing could be more obvious. The compelling performances of the three lead actors only serve to underscore what we feel by instinct anyway – that every human is unique, and every life has value. For this reason, it is utterly devastating when Kathy and Tommy are confronted by what their society really thinks of them. "We didn't have to look into your souls", they are told. "We had to see if you had souls at all."
These words may well ring in the ears of audiences long after they leave the cinema. Is our generation, so immersed in rationalism and relativism, really sure that we "have souls at all"? Like Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, we are in one sense nothing more than pieces of meat, allotted a short span of time on the earth before we die. And yet so much in us speaks of more. We can't shake the hunch that there is right and wrong, that human beings do have intrinsic worth, that love is worth fighting for. Unless we really are made in the image of the God of love, as the Bible claims, we can make little sense of these facts.
The film takes its title from a song that Kathy listens to in her loneliest moments. As a child, we see her cradling her pillow as the lyrics speak of her deepest yearning: Darling, hold me, and never let me go. Despite her life's brevity; despite her isolation; despite everything she has been led to believe about the horrible purpose of her existence, her longing for transience is not quite snuffed out. Like the generation she represents, she is aching for lasting love, and for the affirmation of her humanity amidst all that would seek to deny it. This is the impression of the film's world that lingers: not how strange it is, but how hauntingly familiar.
Book title: Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Keywords: Mortality, time, regret, love, loss, purpose, identity
Publisher: Faber & Faber (UK); Knopf (USA h/b); Vintage (USA p/b)
Publication Date: 2005
Film title: Never Let Me Go
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures (USA); Twentieth Century Fox (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 15 September 2010 (USA); 11 February 2011 (UK)
Certificate: R (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate sex and nudity
Related articles / study guides
- Never Let Me Go - discussion guide (book)
- Never Let Me Go - discussion guide (film)
- The cost of life (article on the book)
- Culturewatch Podcast - Film Releases 11 February 2011
© 2011 Damaris Trust