[Potential spoiler alert]
Within five days I saw Never Let Me Go not once, but twice. It’s not often I’ll pay twice to see the same film in the cinema, so it’s a testament to how thought-provoking and beautiful the film is.
My overriding impression is of how astonishingly brilliant Carey Mulligan is. I’d never seen her in anything else, and was blown away by how emotive she is. Often she communicates more in her facial expressions than can be expressed in words, and her poignant protagonist Cathy undoubtedly makes the film as powerful as it is.
Essentially the film covers the short lives of three children, with the purpose for their existence emerging partway through the film; despite the appearances of a fairly normal if a little strict boarding school, they are being bred as vessels for healthy organs, presumably to deal with the rise in cancers and other such demands for transplants. They are doomed to die before their mid-twenties, undergoing a series of donations of their vital organs, which will eventually lead to their death, or ‘completion’
The situation is both ethically-challenging and disturbing. Clearly society has never taken the path illustrated in the film, though it was undoubtedly available.
You could pick holes in the fictional rationale behind choosing to do it this way. However I’d argue that as the authorities’ realisation that organ production could be far more ‘efficient’ via the ‘battery farms’ method doesn’t set in until later in the film, it suggests a societal discomfort with the new idea of breeding humans in this way.
Perhaps the fictional society hadn’t resolved its own doubts about the scheme – and how else would a society treat its children when it’s only ever cared for them in the conventional way?
The dystopia is humanised somewhat by the tragic love triangle emerging between the three main characters, our narrator Cathy, her love Tommy and her rival Ruth. Their character arcs vary; Tommy starts off as the nervous introverted artist, prone to screaming ‘rages, Ruth is fairly innocent, but becomes manipulative and unscrupulous when working to keep Cathy and Tommy apart. Cathy is the only constant, though we can be sure that she too will be broken when the time comes.
Gowing up in an isolated bubble plays itself out as Ruth seeks to imitate the behaviour of the characters on a 70s American TV show, via the only other couple they know. As Cathy points out, it comical that she’s copying another couple who are just copying a TV show.
The film’s stylisation is very much one of British 70s nostalgia. Anonymous grey seaside coastal towns (Bexhill, if we’re getting specific) are used as the setting for some of the key scenes. And interlude shots lingering on an abandoned ball and a statue seemingly crying in an autumnal shower create a sombre but recognisably British atmosphere. It again normalises the sinister dystopia driving the film’s narrative, and making it seem all the more real.
Cathy’s final monologue poses a question that perhaps didn’t emerge so clearly in the earlier parts of the film: what if their lives aren’t so different from the ‘normal’ people they save – i.e. you or me?
The cringeworthiness of the kids learning when they should laugh, and taking their behavioural clues from tv shows and porn magazines isn’t that different from how we all learn society’s codes, is it?
I imagine that we all wish at some point that we had more time, and feel loneliness creeping up on us as we age. One of the key questions raised when discussing the film with friends – why don’t they just run? – suggests two things two me. Most obviously the fact that they don’t even consider it as an option proves the sinister way in which they’ve been conditioned from childhood.
More broadly though, it confirms to the audience Cathy’s final and lingering message: no one can outrun their life’s inevitable completion.