10 Years On, ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2010) Isn’t As Bleak As You Remember

“I remind myself I was lucky to have had any time with him at all.”

As popular as Alex Garland is as a writer who thrives in the science-fiction genre, thanks to work such as Ex Machina and Annihilation, it is quite astounding that not many people are familiar with the film Never Let Me Go. A dystopian science-fiction drama set in an alternate late-1900’s England, the story follows three characters entangled in a love triangle: Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly). Never Let Me Go is more interested in the characters than the science-fiction elements: telling a story of love and making the most of what time we have. Probably the most memorable aspect for people who have seen the film is the end of act one twist: the main trio are in fact clones with the sole purpose of having their organs harvested, and in effect, dying in their twenties. It’s a brutal and shocking set up for the rest of the film but even though on the surface the rest of the story can seem just as morbid, there is a surprisingly optimistic ending.

The film is actually an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name but the famed author of The Remains of the Day is a long-time friend of Garland. Garland had read the novel, asked for the rights, and wrote a script even before the novel itself was published in 2005. Ishiguro was pleased with Garland’s adaptation and the plot was essentially the same as depicted in the novel. Some time later, director Mark Romanek signed on to the project and the film was shot and then premiered at the 37th Telluride Film Festival. Never Let Me Go fared well with critics but at the box office it was a massive disappointment. Executives at the studio, Fox Searchlight, claim one of the reasons for its commercial failure was the fact it was too depressing for audiences.

Never Let Me Go is essentially one long flashback and we begin by being introduced to the main cast as children in the seemingly blissful boarding school of Hailsham. We spend the whole first act here establishing the relationships between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and we see some of the themes and plot points planted here: the importance of creativity, and Ruth’s jealousy of Kathy and Tommy’s close relationship. A sense of foreboding permeates throughout this chapter of the story however as we are drip-fed clues of the truth: the importance that students stay in good health, the strict rules on not leaving the school grounds, the lessons on simple social skills. When the big twist does eventually come from a teacher unable to keep the truth away from the children any longer, the sadness doesn’t come from just the fact they are all set on a specific path in life but from their reactions. The children simply accept their fate as they know nothing of the outside world and the opportunities other people have.

Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) converse as they walk through the woods. From 'Never Let Me Go'.
image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The second act follows the central trio living in cottages as young adults. Ruth has formed an intimate relationship with Tommy, and Kathy can only stand by and watch (on one unfortunate occasion, literally) but we then find out there have been rumours of a deferral: an opportunity for the clones to postpone the donation process for a few years if they can prove they are in love. Tommy is convinced that art is the key: “Pictures, poetry and sculpture say something about yourself. That’s the whole point of art, isn’t it? It says what’s inside of you – it reveals your soul.” It is a beautiful and hopeful idea, that art can prove someone is in love, but that hope quickly fades as we know Ruth and Tommy aren’t really in love. We know – even the characters know -it should be Kathy and Tommy together.

In the final act, the central characters are split apart: Kathy is now a career for other donors and Tommy and Ruth have started their donation process since they ended their relationship. Ruth however realises her mistakes and brings the gang back together to convince the other two to go for the deferral, if it isn’t too late. Another punch to the gut ensues: after talking to their old teachers from Hailsham, Kathy and Tommy find out the deferral was just a rumour and the point of art was not to see into their souls but to prove to the world they had one. It is a devastating moment, made even more heart-wrenching in the following scene seeing Tommy break down with all hope lost, but there is an optimistic truth that is easy to overlook. As clones, they are designed for a specific task and set on a predetermined path in their short lives, but the fact they made art, fell out with each, fell in love with each other, only confirms that they are conscious beings who lived somewhat. Even when Tommy is in the operation theatre for the final operation, he looks at Kathy for the last time with a smile: knowing he got to spend time with the person he loved. Before Kathy begins her donation process at the very end of the film, she reflects on the life she lived and how lucky she was to share her time with Tommy.      

In the end, “We all complete”. The truth is we all have a finite time on this world. Death comes for us all at some point, however it’s not about the destination but the journey: the time we had and the life we lived. Much like watching Never Let Me Go, it is all too easy to focus on the bleak inevitability but underneath that is hope and love.