Hailsham, at first glance, appears to be just another English boarding school. The setting is pastoral. The buildings are old. The teachers — especially the headmistress — are humorlessly strict. It’s what’s missing from this familiar milieu that slowly but surely tips you off to the place’s dark secret. Nobody, for example, plays cricket or soccer. Everyone is instructed to finish their vegetables.
We come to understand that Hailsham is less an institution of learning than a breeding ground. Its mission isn’t the making of great minds but the nurturing of healthy bodies. Based on the universally acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark (One Hour Photo) Romanek, the film is set in a sort of alternate reality in which human life has been extended, and illness for the most part eliminated, as the result of cloning. In the world of Never Let Me Go, citizens have backup bodies, test-tube doppelgangers whose only purpose is to donate organs as needed.
Such beings are secluded from the society they serve. The movie follows three of them from childhood at Hailsham through early adulthood. Keira Knightley is Ruth, Andrew Garfield is Tommy, and Carey Mulligan is the picture’s oddly detached narrator, Kathy. They have no last names because they have no families. Nor, for all practical purposes, identities.
This is not your father’s dystopian fable, however. Uprisings are not organized. Escapes are not plotted (à la Michael Bay’s instantly forgettable yet similarly premised dud, The Island). What distinguishes both the novel and Alex Garland’s excellent adaptation is the empathetic portrait it paints of a caste that understands its role and accepts its fate. It’s as though, along with its other advances, science has perfected a technique of surgically removing the instinct for self-preservation.
The film is minimal and meditative. As children, it’s clear that Kathy and Tommy have a special connection, and Ruth comes between them just to prove she can. Clones can be mean girls, too, it seems. Later in life, Ruth attempts to atone for having prevented the two people closest to her from experiencing love while the window of opportunity was briefly open. Time, unfortunately, waits for no donor.
Romanek has crafted a tremendously affecting picture whose idyllic visuals provide eerie contrast to the merciless reality the principal characters face. The way they face it is perhaps the film’s chief theme — though any number of allegorical interpretations are possible. Children believe what they are told, and, under the supervision of the never-better Charlotte Rampling as Hailsham’s headmistress, they learn their place. By the time they reach their twenties, her charges are so thoroughly programmed that many, like Kathy, have convinced themselves their fates are not so different from anyone else’s. Who, after all, is guaranteed long life? Death can knock on any door at any time.
I was reminded of another great bit of cinema. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner likewise addressed the concept of a consumer-product caste of beings who look to their human creators for solutions to life’s existential mysteries. On the upside, knowing you’re manmade at least gives you answers to the big questions. The downside is that they’re nearly always as mundane as indifference, self-interest and greed.