Things look too good to be true at Hailsham, an impeccably controlled boarding school in rural England during the 1970s. The faculty, led by steely but cheerful Charlotte Rampling, values the students' health above all else, to the point where they receive constant medical checkups and may not leave the grounds. Classmates like sensitive Kathy, emotional Tommy, and self-centered Ruth experience the minor crises of any kid's coming of age, so why do Hailsham's visitors view the students with such pity and even revulsion?
By the end of Never Let Me Go's first act, the downbeat drama reveals the vaguely science-fiction premise that drives the film. Suffice it to say that Hailsham prizes its students as physical resources rather than individuals, and is much more interested in cultivating healthy hearts instead of open minds.
Never Let Me Go primarily takes place from Kathy's point of view, as she changes from a self-sacrificing girl (Isobel Meikle-Small) to a grown "carer" (An Education's Carey Mulligan), who comforts and supports the adult students of Hailsham and similar institutions in their tragically brief lives. Ever since their Hailsham days, Kathy has felt a romantic connection with Tommy (future Spiderman Andrew Garfield), despite his physical involvement with Ruth (Keira Knightley). The trio grapples with unresolved emotions for each other while living in an English society that denies them the rights of real citizens.
Screenwriter Alex Garland adapted Never Let Me Go from the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day. Despite Never Let Me Go's subtly dystopian themes, the two works have a lot in common, as both involve heroes who place their personal needs as secondary to their duty to England's social system. All three leads give deeply felt, heartbreaking performances, particularly Mulligan, who conveys Kathy's sorrow at her lonely destiny, but the resolution to see it through.
I've only read the first chapter of Never Let Me Go, but suspect that Kathy's first-person narration conceals some of the book's problematic aspects. Instead of viewing the story through her eyes, the movie audience watches Kathy and her friends as observers, and we can't help but wonder about the rules of this seemingly alternate-universe England, and why the Hailsham alumni refuse to resist their fate. In effect, the film contrives to deliver the viewers to a desolate emotional place, and then strands us there without much justification.
The fatalistic film renders idyllic settings through a deliberately dreary lens — is there anywhere as depressing as English seaside resorts? Never Let Me Go's seemingly cozy locales prove more insidious than a Blade Runner-style Orwellian metropolis would be. The more placid things look, the greater the likelihood that people would accept a quietly monstrous situation as being normal. You can imagine the ordinary people in this world saying, with a shrug, "It's not that I support the harvesting of thinking, feeling people, but it's in my health care plan!" Never Let Me Go leaves too many unanswered questions, but at least encourages viewers to be more skeptical than Hailsham's doomed graduates.