Let's start by saying that whatever twist there is in Never Let Me Go isn't a surprise because the trailer pretty much spells it out for us: the characters are basically born to be killed for their body parts. However, we are asked to think about deeper things than Never Let Me Go actually tackles.
Ostensibly the film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel involves the concept of organ harvesting (though in a remarkably elegant manner). Instead, we have to ask ourselves about what is human, what makes one human, how we treat our fellow humans, and what life is: what we were bred to believe or what we choose to be.
We start in Hailsham School, where we are introduced to three children in particular: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy H. These children live in splendid isolation from the rest of the world (in this case Britain). They are raised in this sheltered, insular world where they are instructed in art and also in how to behave in the outside world.
There is a reason for all this: a teacher tells them that they will be used for 'donations' to other people, and that if they make it to their fourth donation, they will die at that point. Even this knowledge does not stop Kathy from falling in love with Tommy, but even though Tommy seems to feel the same way Ruth steps in and seduces him (as much as an eleven-year-old girl can seduce an eleven-year-old boy).
Six years later, they leave Hailsham and move to The Cottages, where the three of them (still basically unaware how the Outside World works), await their first donation. While the romance between Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) deepens, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is left out but still holds on to her love for Tommy, forever playing the cassette he gave her back at Hailsham, which contains a blue-eyed soul song called Never Let Me Go. In desperation and frustration, Kathy becomes a Carer (one who cares for donors pre/post donation).
Time passes. Kathy is a Carer for another donor when she discovers Ruth has already donated twice at that hospital. They reunite, and Ruth tells her where Tommy is. They go to see Tommy, who is remarkably strong in spite of having been through two donations already. While they are together, Ruth confesses she knew Kathy and Tommy had always meant to be together and that she used Tommy to try to get a Deferral, rumored to be given to Hailsham students who were found to be truly in love. While Deferral didn't grant them exemption from donations, it granted them a few years together. Kathy and Tommy go to get a Deferral, only to find it truly was just a rumor. Their time is brief, and soon both Tommy and Ruth have ended their duties.
The film ends with Kathy facing her first donation, and in a field she meditates in a voice over (having narrated the film) on his life, on Ruth's life, on her life, on the Harvesters (those for whom they will surrender their organs), and on what it all means.
Mark Romanek takes Never Let Me Go as a straightforward story, not giving in to the rather sensational plot. The main characters in the film brought to mind the North Korean people: both accept the world they are shown as reality when it really isn't. They don't question the fact that they will be basically killed. Rather, they accept it as a basic fact that cannot be altered. Even when they seek a Deferral, it isn't to escape their fate of being harvested so as to let others live but to merely have some time together as a couple. It's a passivity that suggests that both the world they emerged from and the world that surrounds them accepts the situation as normal.
Curiously, Alex Garland's script suggests this rather than flat-out states it by hints in how during the three ages (1978 in Hailsham, 1985 at The Cottages, and 1994 at Completion) the Britain they live in shifts in attitude on the subject. In the first time period, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) is terminated for informing her students the truth, and the Head Mistress tells them that many might not understand but that this was 'progress'. In the second period, Kathy is transported for her Carer training via a van from the National Donor Programme, which suggests the government now sanctions the situation. In the final period, they find they have no recourse for even a delay, no one to champion their cause, for as Madame tells them, who would want to go back to the age of lung or breast cancer?
Side note: Never Let Me Go was to my mind similar in tone to Children of Men, which makes me wonder what it is about the British mindset that sees the future/alternate past with such a dystopian and bleak worldview. Yet, I digress.
Romanek and Garland create a balance between the characters of Ruth and Kathy. The latter offers true love, while the former merely the pleasures of the flesh (and even in the love scenes between Tommy and Ruth there appears to be a mechanical nature to their lovemaking). Tommy does not appear to be enjoying sex with Ruth, but when he and Kathy finally share a bed (we are not treated to a love scene between them), the mood is remarkably beautiful, tender, and romantic. All this is aided by Rachel Portman's haunting and beautiful score, which adds to the hushed, melancholy tone of Never Let Me Go.
Two of the leads give restrained, gentle performances. Mulligan creates a girl heartbroken not by the inevitable loss of life but by the loss of love. There isn't a hint that she wants revenge for all that Ruth has done, though she does at times express in her face a slight hurt and anger at having to endure this silently. Knightley doesn't come off as a villain, but as a girl who in her own way wants to live, to be more like a Harvester than a Donor. In the Cottages section of the film, they suspect that her Original (the person she was modelled after) lives nearby. They go to see her, but find the resemblance is scant. Ruth's reaction to her reality is one of both fear and hurt.
My biggest complaint about Never Let Me Go I will express here: Garfield's Tommy. Now, he may have played the part correctly, but to my mind Tommy came off as such a simple-minded idiot it was a wonder that any woman (let alone two) would be struggling against each other for his love. Still, I can't say that when he realizes that there are no Deferrals, that his expression isn't indicative of a strong and talented actor.
I will take time to single out Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson as Chrissie and Rodney, two older Donors living at The Cottages who know their way around all non-Donors. They ask the trio about the Deferral rumors, and when they realize none of them understand what they are referring to (let alone confirm the validity of the rumors), both actors show in their faces their hurt and fear about being separated.
One has an overwhelming sense of sadness in Never Let Me Go, and certain scenes are quite difficult to watch. The best example I can give is when Ruth has her last Donation. The disinterest among the medical team is truly heartbreaking.
If one expands on this theme, we can go back to other points in humanity's unhappy history (the conquest of America, the Holocaust, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan) where the idea of 'others' having souls, being like 'us' was questioned with horrifying and tragic results.
Again, I go back to North Korea. There, like the students at Hailsham, they believe the world created for them is reality. They are not aware man has landed on the Moon. They even question whether South Koreans look like them. The world of Never Let Me Go is not too far from reality.
We know that people have had organs stolen for transplants (and in some cases, people have sold their organs voluntarily so as to make a great deal of money). The film gives us a world where the lives of those created to die so others may live past 100 are given a true meaning. We see that, perhaps, those questions that stories like Frankenstein first asked have not yet been fully answered.
It is a haunting, elegant, albeit depressing film. Never Let Me Go is a well-crafted film, but given its subject matter and dark, unhappy tone, not one that will be embraced.