Anybody who picked up a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go after finding it on Time’s list of the best English novels written since 1923 would likely have been baffled after a hundred pages or so. They would have found the Booker Prize winning author had traded out the contemplative, first-person perspective of septuagenarian Mr. Stephens (The Remains of the Day, 1989) for the chatty slang of one “Kathy H.” Those first hundred pages are the reflections of Kathy in her early 30s back on her time at Hailsham, an English boarding house in the country. While the setting at first seems ideal, even moderately inquisitive readers will grow anxious after dissecting the name of the place (“Hail sham,” or Behold a false thing!). However, Ishiguro slowly trades out questions of plot for questions of motivation; by the time it is clear the Hailsham students are being mined for their organs, the reader cares for more the minutiae of their lives. While unimpressive from line to line, or from chapter to chapter, the novel slowly twists until it becomes horrifically grotesque, and the reader will gradually come to terms with the book only in the weeks and months after completing it.
The film comes by way of music video director Mark Romanek, and adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, who also penned 28 Days Later and Sunshine, easily establishing him as the best science fiction writer of his generation. Garland has a fine talent for crafting deep themes without the use of signs, symbols or visual tokens (I imagine him gagging while listening to Shyamalan explain all the red objects in The Sixth Sense). Instead, Garland’s characters often speak his themes into existence, or large maneuvers of the plot ineffably rhyme with this or that character’s personality; the creator is always interested in finding the perfect character to inhabit a bizarre landscape.
The film begins in Hailsham where we meet the three principal characters, Tommy, Ruth and Kathy, all about ten years old. Garland wisely skips most of the mysterious, unnerving first-third of Ishiguro’s book and reveals quickly that the students of Hailsham are clones made to have their organs harvested. They are sadly and soberly informed of this fact by a sympathetic teacher, in a fit of ill conscience, who has taken the news far worse than the students, who respond in much the same way as a child who has been told they will someday die. The unmoved, blank faces of the students at hearing the bad news preside strangely over much of the film, as the second act passes without Tommy, Ruth or Kathy much caring about escape into the wilderness, or finding safe passage to a country where clones are treated with dignity. Rather, after graduating from Hailsham at eighteen, they are sent off to live at “the Cottages” along with other people of their own kind from other schools, and roughly their own age, before being called up for “donations”, one at a time, throughout their mid 20s. From one idyllic setting to the next, the cottage where Kathy and company find themselves is an old English country house on a hundred acres. The interior of the cottage is awash with old hand-sewn quilts and blankets, dilapidated couches, low lamps and perennial Christmas lights. Everyone at the cottages dresses in thick, slouchy sweaters and corduroy. An aura of comfort and ease hangs about the place, as though everyone ought to sit down and get comfortable, even while they know how temporary the place is and what pain they will shortly leave to suffer.
Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are a couple while at the Cottages, and have been together since earliest youth, even while both seem to know Tommy is better suited for Kathy (Carey Mulligan). Tommy and Ruth are not substantially flatter on film than in the novel, as the narrator Kathy rarely owns the kind of maturity to draw anything subtle from either of her best friends. As for Ishiguro, so for Romanek and Garland; Tommy is kind and not very clever, Ruth is cruel and desperate. On screen, Andrew Garfield is gangly and seems to have little control of his face. Carey Mulligans’s hair is often unkempt and her expression always wavers between being physically lost and spiritually lost. The two pair nicely. Ruth is as harsh as Knightley’s chiseled features, though, and so the actress looks out of place next to the others. She seems genetically fated to be cold.
Kathy, on the other hand, enlists to become what the book and the novel awkwardly call “carers,” clones who spend their first few years out of the cottages tending to those being slowly taken apart. Most clones “complete” after two or three donations, but these donations might come at intervals of many months. In the meanwhile, they are bound to hospitals. The responsibilities of the carer are little more than reading stories, talking and playing games with those trying to convalesce. In such a brutal world as the film presupposes, the existence of carers seems nearly too precious to believe. Clones are animal enough to be devoured for medicine, but human enough to hear stories? At times, the plot seems taken over by childlike fear and wonder. “There should be people who care for the sick people called ‘carers’ who read them stories and play games with them and things.” I can imagine my four year old daughter suggesting it in these words.
We have rounded the corner of the third act before the subject of dodging organ donation is broached, but even then, nothing untoward. Ruth confesses her malice toward Kathy as she is dying and encourages her and Tommy to file for “deferment.”
While at Hailsham, students were encouraged to produce works of art which a certain “Madam” would review once or twice a year and select a few for “her gallery.” In the second act, a few non-Hailsham students repeat a bizarre rumor that these works of art are evidence of the students’ souls, and that if they might prove by way of their art that they are in love, they can receive a deferral for the start of their organ “donation.” The suggestion is legendary, though, and if it sounds like a sloppy, Romantic myth invented by pubescent girls, it sadly is, even while thematically unified with the carers. Tommy and Kathy visit Madam, who they have not seen in more than a decade, and find her a retired gardener. She is revealed as a failed political activist and idealist who lobbied the world to treat clones as humans. No other school but Hailsham was so elaborately and humanely set up, and in the wake of Madam’s failure to persuade anyone, most clones are raised on what are cryptically, chillingly referred to as “battery farms.”
In the prologue to the film, we learn the story transpires in the 1980s and 1990s. We might infer from a dystopic plot set in the past that Romanek and Garland aren’t anxious about what the future holds, but the heartbreaking realities of our own day which have been masked beneath layers of euphemism and crass opportunism. If the film has political ambitions, however, they come across more faintly than its ethical and metaphysical meditations. Madam is interested in proving clones have souls, as though a society which clones human beings to harvest their organs could possibly be persuaded of such a thing, let alone even care. Has not such a society already abandoned the immaterial aspect of a man? The clandestine hope of the Hailsham students is proving they have souls, but are they not naive to think it would matter if they could? Once again, Madam’s plan to prove to the world that the clones have souls by showing off their best artwork seems precious, sentimental— a kind of desperate, naïve logic which we might long to govern the City of Man, which is yet heavenly, for the hopeful alone. The weak, the desperate, the abused seem to have a far keener sense of justice, poetic or otherwise.
Presumably, the students’ organs are harvested that people on the outside may live longer; in the end, when Tommy and Kathy track down Madam and try to prove they are human to win deferral, they are involved in the same desperate struggle to keep breathing as the recipients of their donations. Distinguishing between those inside Hailsham and those outside becomes more difficult, and in her final monologue, Kathy admits she no longer understands the difference. Never Let Me Go, like Spielberg’s A.I. or District 9, requires the viewer to reject what they are told (mind over mantra); District 9 is not about aliens, A.I. is not about a robot and Never Let Me Go is not about clones. All three films are about human beings wanting, suffering, dying.
In the final image of the film, and the novel, Kathy is but a few weeks away from her first donation, and while driving home from a hospital, she pulls off on the side of the road to look beyond an old barbwire fence wherein bits of garbage become caught after being blown across miles and miles of flat countryside. “I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up…” she says, and the fence seems to become the whole world, and each thing caught on it a soul, incarnate for but a few minutes, only to be crucified, and then, unfastened, continue blowing across the cosmos, perhaps to someday return, perhaps not. At the same time the image is dismal, perhaps touched by Plato’s myth of Ur, the story concludes with the profound realization that, because the soul is eternal, a life is not less meaningful merely because it is brief. In Ecclesiastes 6, the Preacher teaches: If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness, or indeed he has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better than he— for it comes in vanity and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Though it has not seen the sun or known anything, this has more rest than that man, even if he lives a thousand years twice—but has not seen goodness. Do not all go to one place? Long life is not the final measure of blessedness, and the pain of spirit Kathy has willingly and patiently suffered, without complaint or bitterness or chance for redress, will someday be heard by the God Who makes death, mourning, crying and pain to pass away.