Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek

Funny how film fictions aspiring to profound philosophical insight often fall so flat.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on April 11, 2011

Longevity and Platitude. Film review – Tom Jennings
Never Let Me Go’s dull pastels and slow painterly cinematography extrapolate plot and atmospheric essentials from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, following into young adulthood a tragic love-triangle featuring the cream of twenty-something Brit actors performing various shades of depressed resignation among an impeccable ensemble of grim guardians and companions. Economically-established conservative English costume drama conventions are immediately undercut, however, as captions introduce an alternate-reality 1980s where decisive medical advances occurred decades earlier. Lower-posh boarding school children take for granted somewhat sinister routines and rituals whereupon they gradually glimpse their ‘special’ status as clones bred for organs, subsequently graduating to lodgings at remote rural farms until, after full physical maturity, successive donations at transplant centres leave exhausted bodies ‘complete’. Carefully-inculcated ascetically stoical dispositions console themselves and each other with half-hearted theories about their ‘originals’, fears of the outside world, and fantasies about relationships, but acceptance of stultification prompts nary a complaint, scarcely any ethical curiosity, and certainly no active rebellion – and, unlike the usual science-fiction suspects, this tale examines precisely such passivity.
Director Mark Romanek’s bland pop video sensibility echoes the source’s restraint, but avoids both its pomposity and the technological determinism and individualist grandstanding of Hollywood’s hermetically-sealed dystopias. Yet conceptually we are light years from far superior forerunners in, for example, Philip K. Dick’s visionary speculation (as in Blade Runner, among others) or John Wyndham’s middlebrow postwar melancholia (or, with perverse slip showing, early J.G. Ballard), let alone Huxley and Orwell’s literary templates. Jazz vocalist Jane Monheit’s retro torch song is a perfect titular anthem given this film’s desperate nostalgia for genuine passion simulated by those constitutionally unable to recognise it – reminiscent also of sundry Cool Britannia crossovers like novelists Ian McEwan, Alex Garland (providing most of Danny Boyle’s recent cinematic trivial pursuits before scripting Never Let Me Go) and Ishiguro. Across genres and media, pale imitations plundering the cultural body-politic back-catalogue seem all cutting-edge commercial po-mo hipness can manage nowadays.
This particular tepid, timid, subprime derivative squanders countless imaginative flourishes gesturing at twentieth-century sociopolitical governance passing from traditional aristocratic condescension to brutally psychotic consumerism. All spirit and spunk is squeezed out along with any productive possibilities for citizens apart from merely existing and, by virtue of being ‘special’, destined to be used up for the ‘greater good’. With viewers thereby left vaguely sentimentally unsettled while satisfyingly detached, our replicant’s closing voiceover wonders if regular folks are really that different – dying without understanding what happened to them during their lives. But every sketched dimension of the characters, premise, socio-economic context and narrative thrust is thoroughly unconvincing, and this anticlimax compounds complete failure to explore tantalising questions tentatively raised about the meaning of (middle-class) life. The potentially crucial corollary, considering whether institutionally cocooned creativity ‘reveals the soul’, or just anaestheticises and inoculates against inconvenient visceral and collective intelligence, furthermore fades inexorably to grey – both in its sadsack fatalists and, tellingly, the story itself.
Never Let Me Go is released on DVD on 27th June.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 7, April 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: