NEVER LET ME GO is based quite faithfully on the beautifully written and quite disturbing 2005 novel of the same name by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize (which he had previously won with Remains of the Day) and was named by Time Magazine as the best novel of 2005, as well as being listed as fourth on their list of the 100 Best English-language novels published since 1923 (when they started publishing).
This gave the film a high bar, but it does not disappoint, due to the superb cast, the direction of Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), and the script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), a friend of Ishiguro, who asked the author for film rights before he even finishing reading the manuscript. Yep, it’s that good.
OK. This is a spoiler alert, particularly if you are going to read the book, although any review will soon tell you what it’s about, and the “secret” is revealed quite early in the film. Here goes. The film is set in an alternative present, where incurable diseases have been conquered.
The protagonists are clones, bred to supply their organs to “real” humans, who can now live well into their hundreds, thanks in part to these donations, and the new medical technologies. The kids are brought up to live healthy lives. Smoking? Right out. A healthy replacement part in a healthy body. The stern principal, Miss Emily (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling) tells them not to spoil the merchandise:
“Students of Hailsham are special. Keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves healthy inside, is of paramount importance.”
We see the childhood of the protagonists mainly through the eyes of 11-year-old Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) who has a preteen crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe).
Her best friend is Ruth (Ella Purnell). Ruth’s confidence and precocity wins over the shy and vulnerable Tommy, who is barely able to cope with the inevitable challenges and failures of growing up. Tommy represents so many of us – filled with rage at the injustices and humiliations of the world, but unwilling to stand up and take what he wants. Kathy accepts the loss of her first love to her first friend.
The children are encouraged to create pictures, poetry and sculpture, which may be chosen for display in a mysterious place called “The Gallery”. They are told that Hailsham children are special. They are told of dangers that befall children who leave the school grounds – the boy who was found tied to a tree with his hands and feet cut off, the girl who starved outside the gates. They are not told the truth. One teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins from The Shape of Water) dares to tell them what will happen when they grow up, which gets her fired. She tells them,
“You will become adults, but only briefly. Before you are old, before you are even middle-aged, you will start to donate your vital organs. That’s what you’re created to do. And sometime around your third or fourth donation, your short life will be complete.
The film moves to their adulthood – at 18, they are moved out of Hailsham and sent to a collection of farm buildings called the cottages, to wait until they are old enough to move to “completion centres” where they will begin to donate their organs. Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is now in a sexual relationship with Ruth (Keira Knightley) which shatters the friendship of Ruth and Kathy (Carey Mulligan).
The people from the outside, the delivery men and others, are reticent, unable to make eye contact with the kids; they exhibit the kind of cognitive dissonance you might see from people on a petting farm, admiring a piglet that they know will soon be bacon.
These kids are not considered human, even though they are genetically identical to some “original” whom they desperately want to meet – the ‘real’ human from whom they were replicated. Ruth is convinced they must be less than fully human, that they are cloned only from
“trash – junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps, convicts, as long as they aren’t psychos. If you want to look for originals… look in the gutter.”
Tommy finds Kathy looking through porn magazines, flipping through quickly, looking only at the faces. She is looking for the “trash”, the less-than-humans from whom they may have been cloned.
The other young people tell them of a rumour about the possibility of Hailsham students getting a “deferral”—a temporary reprieve from organ donation if they can prove they are in love. Tommy decides that The Gallery at Hailsham was part of a study to see if clones have souls, can fall in love, and are therefore worthy of deferral. He becomes obsessed with finding the Gallery, and seeing if love, verifiable love, makes them human.
They are also able to volunteer to become carers for the others, and Kathy decides to do this, delaying thereby her own donations. She finds Ruth at a completion centre – Ruth has endured two donations and is ready, willing to complete on the next.
They visit Tommy at another centre, who tells them that Hailsham has closed, and donors are now raised in schools that are like “battery farms”. The donation centre is full of “donors” with missing parts – and they often die (or complete) after two or more donations.
Ruth has heard that after the fourth donation, there are no more carers, no more recovery centres, just harvesting of parts until they switch you off. Kathy cares for Ruth, who dies (completes) after her third donation, and Kathy then takes Tommy, still reasonably well after two donations, to see the mysterious gallery owner.
They’re in love, they tell her. They want a deferral. But the gallery was just part of an ethical argument – Hailsham was the last place where the ethics of the donor system were questioned, and the art was supposed to show what they were capable of. But they were exploring an answer to a question no one was asking.
“Would you ask people to return to darkness – the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor-neurone disease? They’ll simply say no…. We didn’t have the gallery to look into your souls. We had the gallery to see if you had souls at all.”
Films on www.thecannibalguy.com tend to centre around violence and gore. That is what people expect from horror and from cannibal movies. But this is not a horror movie, or at least not a monster movie in the traditional sense of the grotesque, frightening and uncanny. But is it a cannibal movie?
I believe it is. Definitions of cannibalism vary according to who is accusing whom. At what point does exploitation of the human body or mind turn to abuse or consumption? Organ transplants, where a living organ is incorporated into the body of a recipient, is sometimes called cannibalism, particularly due to speculation that some part of the ‘donor’ remains imbued – consider James Whale’s classic 1931 film Frankenstein, where the monster is given a brain stolen from the cranium of a criminal, which makes him homicidal. In any case, if an organ is taken without the consent of the ‘donor’, such as the alleged cases of political prisoners being executed according to the demand for their tissue-type, how is this different to Hannibal’s feasts?
The horror in this film is in the human struggle with questions of mortality, what it even means to be human. These kids seem to be normal people – they laugh, they sing, they tease each other, they fall in love. But they are aware of their own deaths, something that most of us repress more or less successfully, assuming that we will always have another tomorrow. They know better; they are destined to be cut up and emptied of organs until their bodies give out. They are not fully human, despite looking just like any other bunch of kids, because they are cloned, and so are classified as beneath the human line in the anthropocentric scorecard. They are at best “all but human” through their art. But the ‘real’ humans don’t care. Redefine someone as less than human, objectify them, be they a different race, gender or species, and the range of abuses is unlimited. Nothing matters but our delusion that we will live forever, necessitating the sacrifice of the other.
The critic Roger Ebert wrote:
“Essentially it asks, how do you live with the knowledge that you are not considered a human being but simply a consumer resource? Many hourly workers at big box stores must sometimes ponder this question.”
There is no option for resistance. They have been brought up all their young lives to obey, to believe that it is necessary to be cut up, to complete, for the benefit of unknown others, because that’s what they were bred for, just as we justify cutting up cows and pigs and chickens and lambs because that’s we bred them for. Only Tommy rebels, but it’s an inchoate howl of rage, the same scream at the butchering world that he aimed at the kids who didn’t pick him for their game when he was 11. Powerless, all he can do is bellow like a steer in an abattoir. It may be that defiance of death that verifies his humanity, because, as Dylan Thomas said, we ought to “rage against the dying of the light”.
Or as another Dylan said (Bob), “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Kathy sums this up at the end:
“What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through. Or feel we’ve had enough time.”