Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the movie)

The film begins so – “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.”
Never Let Me Go is set in this alternate reality. It follows the lives of three children,
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who grow up together in a typical English boarding school. Except, Hailsham is not an ordinary school. The children are “duplicates” or clones whose lives have a special purpose – to make organ donations, a fate clear to the viewer from the start, but not to them. A coming-of-age journey like no other, Never Let Me Go is a search for identity, hope, a tale of friendship and unrequited love, as Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up to face what the world has in store for them. 
Two years ago, I wrote a rant-review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the book (read more about the plot there.) The movie, directed by Mark Romanek (who unsurprisingly I had never heard of), is also a beauty. Like the book, it made me scared and weepy. Ishiguro writes a blend of Japanese and English styles, somehow both melancholy and impassive. This book had some failings, an odd arrangement of plot here, a convenient tying off of loose threads there – but its powerful composition made me let them go. And this is a rare adaptation that so closely follows the story while doing justice to the sentiment.

Never Let Me Go has a tone of helpless silence that is most striking. No reader or viewer is new to dystopian fiction – from Hunger Games to 1984, there has been a lot in this genre. Doesn’t the word dystopia conjure dreadful provocative images in your mind, the kind filled with torture chambers and riots? Never Let Me Go is not that. It is much closer to home.
Do not watch the movie expecting a story about three friends teaming up against circumstance, to overthrow an awful authority, if only to end up squashed by the system. Ishiguro and Romanek have penned a far likelier version of the future for the vast majority of us. It is a world where you accept what is thrown your way, because that’s what most of us would do. The quiet resignation in Kathy’s voice makes the movie most haunting. 
And what makes the story most effective, irrespective of medium, is this – you never meet the bad-guy. The normal people, who are not duplicates and organ donors, are the teachers at Hailsham school. And they never outright mistreat the children, they do nothing that doesn’t happen in schools now, nothing you want to shout at and protest against. You see the injustice in the little things, the rundown cottages the kids move to after school, the deliverymen who can’t quite meet their eyes. The sad truth of the story is it makes you empathize with both sides of the coin – the main characters, who are little more than experiments created to serve others, and the rest of the world that reaps the benefits of invention, guiltless, so long as they don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. 
The cast is great, just like I had pictured them. There should be a word for finding out the book adaptation you really want to watch stars Keira Knightley. In this movie, unlike her others, I actually liked her in the role of sassy, headstrong Ruth. The book gets its title from a fictional song that little Kathy dances to, imagining herself an impossible future. The scene in the movie, somewhat different, is still touching, and the young actress who plays Kathy conveys a multitude of emotions through her little swaying dance. She brings this light to the first half of the film that is just charming. Her bond with Tommy is precious. And she looks uncannily like Carey Mulligan, who plays grown-up Kathy. 
The movie appears inescapably English. Ishiguro uses rain as a frequent plot device, most key conversations happen because the characters are stuck somewhere while it’s pouring outside. True to the narrative, the film has this drab rainy appearance that makes it even gloomier. The story is brimming with ideas and Ishiguro lets them brim over inside you, leaving a hundred questions unanswered. The movie could have been more dramatic, graphic, but it maintains Ishiguro’s subtlety. Don’t watch the movie with a closed mind and expect to be taken by the hand and led through an experience. Open your mind, welcome in the discreet flavourless terror and your imagination should suffice to drive you crazy.

11 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the movie)

  1. Great review, I´ll keep my eyes open for this. It is already happening, you know, I have read several accounts where a child is conceived to be organ donor to an elderly sibling (as I recall, all were about giving bone marrow to an older child with cancer). It can not be an easy situation, but doing it on an industrial scale, as seems to be done in Ishiguro´s story, that´s horrid.


  2. Victoria – It is horrid. At one point in the movie someone says, "if you ask people to go back to the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor neuron disease, they'll simply say no." And no matter what one rejects now, one can't help but believe that scenario.
    I have heard of it too, siblings conceived specifically for bone marrow transplant. It would not have occurred to me as an example of this, but you're right, and it cannot be easy…


  3. Great review Priya.

    I have neither read the book or seen the film but I have heard such good things about the book. I really like the idea that this sounds like it avoids many of the cliches of so many dystopian stories.

    I will check out your commentary on the book next.


  4. I never knew what the book was about, let alone that there was a movie as well. It sounds quite depressing, more so because it could be possible, like you said. I don't know if I want to read about this or watch it but I enjoyed your review.


  5. Brian, I would be interested to know what you think of it. It does avoid cliches, it will be very hard to classify it as one genre of fiction – dystopian or sci-fi.

    Delia, I had stumbled on to the book and read it without knowing what it was. I saw the movie because I was genuinely interested in how it would be on film. I loved both, and the happy moments in both the book and movie are very touching. That said, the story is depressing, and you should only try it if you are prepared to feel both really angry and sad. 😉

    Catherine, thanks! I hope you like it as much as I did. 🙂


  6. When I read the book, I didn't actually know for the longest time that they were organ donors. That suspense was one of the positives of the book. In the movie, we are told up front they are organ donors?


  7. I read Never Let Me Go a coupled of years ago and LOVED it (and cried a lot). I have never seen the movie version though, but I'm glad to hear it lives up to expectations! I might have to watch this soon.


  8. Nishita, really? That is surprising. I knew right from the start, in the book, and the movie starts with Kathy in a hospital talking about the donors and carers. I always assumed we were meant to know, though not the children at Hailsham themselves…

    Kelsey – If you loved the book, you should definitely watch the movie. It is one of those few that could live up to expectations! 🙂


  9. It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think I knew they were donors until somewhere near the middle, I think. There was all this fuss about teachers asking them to do art and they not knowing what it was for, and stuff like that. I read this during my pre-blogging days so I probably had no idea what it was about when I started.

    Or maybe I was just really dense >.<


  10. It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think I knew they were donors until somewhere near the middle, I think. There was all this fuss about teachers asking them to do art and they not knowing what it was for, and stuff like that. I read this during my pre-blogging days so I probably had no idea what it was about when I started.

    Or maybe I was just really dense >.<


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