Never Let Me Go is some kind of minor miracle. It's a slowly paced, lightly plotted major Oscar season release that spends most of its time considering death and mortality, and just how fleeting everything can be. The emotional heft of it snuck up on me, to the point that I was at work today when I was quite suddenly bowled over by the tragedy of it all. Not that it didn't occur to me when the film finished initially - and I was plenty moved then as well - but it is simply a film that benefits tremendously from time. That, ironically, is also its major weakness.
To discuss the film with any degree of consideration is to give away its central mystery - which doesn't really remain a mystery too long anyway - so consider this your warning. You have my general thoughts, but from here on out anything goes.
The central struggle in the film is all about time - the time we have left and what we do with it. For Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), time is all they have, and all they lack. Cloned from the undesirable elements of society, they are created solely to donate organs and body parts to people who need them. Everything is provided for them from the moment they enter this world to when they leave it, and by the time they're eighteen, they can leave the boarding school they were brought up in and live relatively independent lives. But by the time they're twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, they'll have been harvested for their vital organs and will be left to die.
It's a devastating premise for a film, and writer Alex Garland - adapting a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro - and director Mark Romanek wisely allow the audience to fill that tragedy in on their own. There is only one true outburst of emotion. All else is hinted, indicated, and felt so powerfully in the cinema (that is, the composition and editing) and acting, particularly by Carey Mulligan. She completely won me over with An Education, but she might be even finer here. Her eyes alone express everything in the film; the entire human experience.
And it's all so quietly heartbreaking. I nearly get choked up thinking back on certain images in the film - Kathy holding a pillow tightly as a forgotten love song plays on her tape deck, the image that opens the film when it is revisited towards the end, Tommy taking command of a wrecked ship. Many more I'd rather not mention, for they are the true spoilers. This is only Romanek's second film (third if you count his 1985 film Static, which he has since disowned), and while I'm not onboard with all of his decisions - his use of handheld in particular feels a little lazy - I was bowled over by how much he was capable of expressing in some of those images.
Garland's screenplay is, admittedly, imperfect. As time is everything in this film, it would have benefitted from something to communicate the passage of time a bit more. As it is, weeks will pass slowly but they'll happily skip over years in the blink of an eye. My initial impulse was to add another hour or so to the film, but Terrence Malick accomplished this feeling with less time in Days of Heaven, so, hey, whatever works. I just needed to touch base with these characters as they grew, rather than catch up with them after they already had. Additionally, the themes and plotting can be a little on-the-nose at times, though even that's hard to fault because Kathy's final monologue - undoubtedly the greatest offense in this arena - is so exquisitely written and conveys so much depth of feeling and understanding that it's hard to really fault it too much.
That said, its ambition and considerable accomplishment far outweigh its flaws. Never Let Me Go is a quietly heartbreaking, haunting film that will stay with me long after the lights come up.