Mark Romanek. U.K. 2010.

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“Love is a symbol of eternity. It wipes out all sense of time, destroying all memory of a beginning and all fear of an end”
Author Unknown

Note: Spoiler Alert

Based on the acclaimed novel of 2005 by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go is the story of an ill-fated love triangle between Ruth (Kiera Knightley), Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) in a parallel universe set in England between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s. The premise of the film is that science has found a way to extend human life and to eliminate disease by creating clones whose only purpose is to live until their early adulthood, then donate their organs to science. The children grow up secluded from human society and do not experience a context for their life, such as parents, siblings, history, geography, or politics and are shunned by the outside world. 

We first meet the three children in flashback growing up at a pleasant looking boarding school named Hailsham far away from any city influences. They play sports like other children - get into mischief, form friendships, (Kathy has fallen for Tommy but he is involved with Ruth and jealousies arise), yet have no idea how different they are. Although the children are well supported by “guardians”, they are regimented, not taught to think for themselves nor exposed to the rest of society. There are “carers” and “donors”. The job of the carers is to help the donors through the process until it is their time to donate their organs. After several donations, one is said to having “completed” their reason for existence but the word death is never mentioned.

One day their third year guardian, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), surprisingly reveals to the children the true nature of their purpose on the planet. For this disclosure, she is promptly fired the next day by the authoritarian head mistress (Charlotte Rampling). As the children grow up and leave Hailsham, they are placed in other homes such as The Cottages where they await their donations. Tommy and Ruth are together and Kathy is still on the outside looking in. Here they are allowed to leave the school grounds, at one time taking a trip to see someone that Ruth describes as possibly her original. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Kathy and Tommy (finally together) explore with their former guardians the idea that their status as donors can be deferred if they can prove that they are in love.

There is much to stimulate the mind in Never Let Me Go, yet there is little to engage the heart. While the acting is superb and the photography outstanding, the tone is laden with a morose solemnity and the utter passivity of the young people is distancing. I applaud the implication that the use of science without morality is destructive and inhumane and we can all relate to the injustice of the swift approach of death, yet the logic of the genetic engineering suggested here is dubious and unclear. 

Although we can celebrate the fact that love is the key to the survival of the children in an existence destined to be short, there is no feeling of deeper meaning, no interconnectedness, no God, no joy, no hopes, no dreams, no sense that there may be something transcendent in the universe that everyone, regardless of their experience on earth, can access. Never Let Me Go is a solid translation to the screen of what is apparently a thought provoking book and I applaud the lack of maudlin sentimentality, yet for me the film remains emotionally inert and does not reach the heights one would expect from a fully satisfying work of art.


Howard Schumann

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