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Film Review: Never Let Me Go

21 February 2011
Appeared in BioNews 596

Never Let Me Go

Directed by Mark Romanek

Based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro


Buy this film on DVD from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

'Never Let Me Go', directed by Mark Romanek and based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro

Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go is the film adaptation of the Booker Prize-nominated novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The film is narrated by Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) who begins by reminiscing about her childhood at Halisham, a school for 'special pupils'. The audience is taken on a journey with Kathy as she remembers her experiences at Hailsham and her life after she leaves the school. We are introduced to two other pupils of Hailsham, Ruth and Tommy, and it is the relationship between the three of them that forms the basis of the story.

It is clear from the beginning of the film that Hailsham is not an ordinary school, as great emphasis is placed on the pupils remaining healthy, taking medication and staying within the school boundaries. The audience soon learns the real truth about the pupils' existence: they are all clones whose only purpose in life is to be a repository for the vital organs of another; their 'originals'. All the pupils will undergo a series of operations to donate organs, until their inevitable 'completion'.

The film's director Mark Romanek has created an eerie and depressing atmosphere that reflects the book's dystopian nature. Rachel Portman's score only intensifies the awkward and disturbing images on screen: her strings and piano unifying the story into one of desperation and frustration.

The film aims to provoke a debate about the ethical issues surrounding organ donation and what it means to be human. Reference is continually made to these children's supposed lack of humanity. Instead they are creatures, or objects, for society to use for utilitarian purposes. At one point in the film, a teachers says 'oh, you poor creatures' to Kathy, while stroking her face.

The dehumanisation of the pupils is repeated when Hailsham students are encouraged to paint, draw and write poetry to be included in 'The Gallery'. Throughout the film, the pupils believe that these items will help them prove their love for a fellow pupil, allowing them the chance to 'defer' their donations for a couple of years.

However, as the former headmistress of Hailsham explains to Kathy and Tommy later on in the film, the purpose of 'The Gallery' was to provide evidence clones had a soul. This revelation shatters Kathy's and Tommy's possible hopes about deferring their inevitable demise, which shows that - when it comes to death - you cannot put off the inevitable.

For me, the acting in the film fell short of portraying the horror and visceral reaction one should experience after being told of the true reason for Hailsham's existence. I found it difficult to build any empathy with the characters, even in the scene where we are shown the 'completion' of one of them.

The film's primary focus is on the love triangle between the three main characters and their having to come to terms with the inevitable completion of their short lives. However, the frustration and anger of their fate barely comes across on screen. The audience only gets the chance to experience the raw emotions of the characters during Tommy's sudden outrage near the end of the film and Kathy's reaction. But even then, Tommy's outburst is reserved.

Furthermore, the cloning process is hardly mentioned. The audience understands through subtle hints the children are clones of their 'originals', but the legal, ethical and moral implications of using cloning technology is not broached. This is unfortunate, as the film is about cloning a human being and whether the practice of organ retrieval is a legitimate reason to clone somebody, as well as the ethics of organ donation and the restrictions on personal autonomy. But perhaps I am seeing this too much from a medical law student's point of view?

In a world where most western countries are suffering from a serious shortage of organs and an ever-increasing waiting list for organs, Never Let Me Go offers an insight into an extreme answer to the problem. With infertile women in their 40s already sourcing eggs from young women, seeking surrogates to carry their embryo, and creating a 'saviour sibling' for their sick child, we already use other people's bodies for our own gains. Is battery farming cloned humans for their organs far off? Maybe not in the cinema, but one would hope in reality.

Never Let Me Go is a beautifully subtle film that attempts to adapt a complex novel onto the big screen. Unfortunately, the screenplay is sometimes too subtle for the audience to gain the real purpose behind the film.

Buy Never Let Me Go on DVD from Amazon UK or Amazon USA, and buy the book by Kazuo Ishiguro on which the film is based from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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