Twenty years ago, when I was a kid, my mum bought me a copy of Raymond Brigg’s When The Wind Blows. It tells the story of a middle aged British couple who bravely and naively prepare for nuclear war. They follow hopelessly inadequate government instruction manuals on how to protect themselves from nuclear radiation and then slowly waste away when the unthinkable happens. Throughout this ordeal the couple resolutely display those time-honoured British qualities: they remain good-natured and keep a stiff upper lip.
Never Let Me Go reminded me a lot of When The Wind Blows.
The film opens with a title panel that explains, without going into detail, that a medical breakthrough in the middle of the 20th Century has cured ‘the incurable’ and the average life expectancy is now over a hundred.
We are then introduced to three children Kathy, Tommy and Ruth who all grow up at Hailsham school in the 1970s. Although the school strictly forbids the children to wander outside school grounds, the teachers seem otherwise quite considerate and the film initially appears to be an idyllic take on British boarding school life. Kathy, the film’s narrator, is earnest, kind and bright. She politely tolerates her friend Ruth’s snobbier and slightly more arrogant qualities and she is also quite taken with Tommy, a simple minded boy who is the butt of the jokes in his class. The three of them become good friends.
Something seems off about Hailsham school though. The children, although in their early teens, take lessons on how to order food and drink in a cafe, as if they are completely isolated from the outside world. No mention is ever made of parents. Eventually, the film plays its hand and reveals that these children are lab experiments. They are being raised to the age of young adults at which point they will be harvested for their organs so they can be donated to people in the outside world who become seriously ill.
Now because this is not an American film, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth do not bust out of the boarding school, dramatically escape their fate and expose to the world what a sordid ordeal they are in. Instead, they embody a similar attitude to the old couple in When The Wind Blows. Most of the time they are politely and stoicly resigned to their fate. One of them eventually tries to delay their forced organ donation by offering to fill in a medical form which they hope will delay the procedure for a few years. When they are declined, they maintain their stiff upper lip. At least for a while.
The children are conditioned by the school to use euphemisms for their impending fate. They do not die after losing multiple organs, they simply ‘complete’. Peversely, they also take pride in counting how many donations they can give up before expiring on the operating table as a badge of honour.
Despite the rather horrific circumstances facing the cast, Never Let Me Go is primarily focused on exploring the relationships of young lovers who know they are on borrowed time. If these poor bastards have one advantage over the rest of us, its that they get a memo from the government letting them know when their time is up. And knowing that makes every second count.
Never Let Me Go explores very similar existential themes to what the Replicants experience in Blade Runner. Some meekly accept their fate. Others desperately scramble to get a few more years. The wiser ones know to make the most of the time that they have. This highly unusual concept film is well served by its central cast Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield who are all uniformly excellent in their roles. The skillful direction by Mark Romanek never oversells the story and trusts that the audience can keep up and observe what is unfolding. It’s a thoughtful film and after the credits rolled, I was more than a little creeped out by what I saw and left pondering questions about life, the universe and everything.