When Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go was first published in 2005, it found itself shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Arthur C Clark Award and also the National Book Critics Circle Award. TIME Magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and also placed in the TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Happily, thanks to an extremely sensitive screenplay by Alex Garland and beautiful direction by US director Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go (2010) succeeds in presenting a timeless story of love and hope, encased within a unique dystopian world. Cathy H (Carey Mulligan) is a girl who has always known her destiny.
Brought up in a seemingly ordinary boarding school, she and her best friends Ruth (Kiera Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) have been told since birth that they are different from other children: special, more important. Their physical well-being is tantamount, they receive regular medical checks and are taught to understand – and not only understand, but accept – that their life spans are fated to be much shorter than that of other human beings. The world we’re watching, we soon realise with growing unease, is not the one we live in. The children of Hailsham are clones, created to donate organs to those who need them. Their only destiny is to grow up, to donate, and when their bodies can take no more, to die before middle age. However, and sort of wonderfully, this is not the pressing issue for Cathy H.
Having spent years sharing secret smiles and unspoken understanding with Tommy, she doesn’t know how to react when he and Ruth begin a relationship. As the years go by, and as the three leave Hailsham for ‘the Cottages’ before they begin their donations, Cathy continues to watch the pair in silent hope and despair. Should she wait her turn, hoping that the caustic Ruth will eventually get bored? And, when destined to live a life such as theirs, how much time can one spend simply hoping? The central themes; the pain of mortality, the power of love and the infallibility of hope are not baubles tacked onto a gimmicky sci-fi romp. Rather, they lead a intimate and tragic love story that is simply made all the more acute by its unique surroundings.
Carey Mulligan is heartbreakingly lovely as our protagonist, a girl who grows up aching for a life she feels she will never experience, and we fall in love with Tommy through her eyes – Andrew Garfield’s innocent, easy charm making it a happy task. Keira Knightley is satisfyingly annoying as the jealousy ridden Ruth, though when her part gets a little more taxing she struggles to keep up with her co-stars. Generally though, the three work well as a group of friends both sure and unsure of what the future will hold, and Romanek’s strong grip on the story means that our attention never wavers.
Tragic, beautiful and simultaneously strange and familiar, Never Let Me Go serves a unique slant on the universal human condition. Though set in a world apart from our own, its differences only serve to highlight the painful hopes, fears and disappointments we all share. Ultimately the audience is left pondering not just the terrifying destinies of the lives we have just followed, but the purpose of our own, unique paths. Mr. Ishiguro, you can now breathe out – they haven’t let you down.