If you’re able to get through Never Let Me Go with a dry eye, then congratulations. You’ll never suffer the fate of our three protagonists — that is, you’ll never never be cloned and shipped off to an austere British academy to be treated as organ donating cattle — because you don’t have a heart.
The first thing you have to let go of when you watch Never Let Me Go on HBO Max is the notion that you’ll be anything but melancholic at the conclusion of director Mark Romanek’s 2010 sci-fi romance flick. Starring baby-faced Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as doomed lovers, along with Keira Knightley, Domhnall Gleeson, Andrea Riseborough, Sally Hawkins, and even a wee Ella Purnell, critics were mixed when the movie was released, with some dismissing it as too bleak.
But that is, in a sense, the point. Never Let Me Go, adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, is faithful to its source material, which is a dystopic, tragic romance. In a world similar to our own, humans are cloned and eventually used to donate organs to help sustain other humans well past the age of 100. Breast cancer, lung cancer, and ALS are gone, but at the cost of hundreds of young people.
When we’re first introduced to empathic and creative Kath (played in childhood by Izzy Meikle-Small), pretty and popular Ruth (Ella Purnell), and sweet, tortured artist Tommy (Charlie Rowe), they’ve yet to learn their fate. The “orphaned” trio live at Hailsham, an ostensible boarding school, and a love triangle forms. All is well and good until, of course, it isn’t.
This burgeoning cute coming-of-age story in the idyllic English countryside is shattered by whistleblowing fourth-grade teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), who tells the children that they won’t live to find out whether they’ll fulfill their dreams. Their only purpose is to be euthanized — or “complete,” in the movie’s disquieting language — so that others may live. Miss Lucy is promptly fired for her act of defiance, and Ruth, Tommy, and Kath are left to grow up with the burden of this knowledge.
So yeah, bleak. It’s tough not to get sucked into a whirlwind of dread and despair, especially once you see Kath (now Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) reach young adulthood and you find yourself desperately hoping they’ll make it to 30.
But Never Let Me Go is meant to be watched and appreciated for its cinematographic beauty, its fantastic emotive performances (especially from Garfield), and its meditative ethical quandaries.
This movie won’t make you smile much, especially once you become a sobbing mess, but the feelings of hope, frustration, outrage, and yearning will linger on. Perhaps what most occupies your mind during Never Let Me Go’s 103 minute run is that this alternate reality is grotesque, unfair, drab, and also, pointedly, not entirely implausible.
Romanek does a wonderful job at incorporating all the questions we’re meant to be asking about why we’re here, what bodies have worth, what identity is, and whether the soul can be replicated. Meanwhile, Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley, along with a strong supporting cast, will have us praying for miracles right up until the bitter end, even though we know they’re not coming.
Never Let Me Go is streaming on HBO Max until April 30.