Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) live in a world and a time that feel familiar to us, but are not quite like anything we know. They spend their childhood at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. When they leave the shelter of the school and the terrible truth of their fate is revealed to them, they must also confront the deep feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that threaten to pull them apart.

Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

2
High concept adaptation weighed down by halting narrative.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s stolid adaptation of the best selling novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, begins with a pat rearrangement of history: In 1952, a medical breakthrough cured all major diseases; by 1967 the average life expectancy was over 100 years. Although the film takes place in the post-cure, alternate world—a genteel dystopia in which clones are discreetly cooked up and raised in holding pens that look remarkably like British public schools until their organs are needed—those opening titles are as close it gets to laying out its terms in a clear and convincing way. Though much art direction and emoting is thrown in its general direction, the concept is so high it seems to lift right out of Romanek’s reach.

Rather than pursue a more organic aesthetic, the former video director tries to force the story down the prestige picture path, which means that despite being set in 1978, time appears to have been frozen not at mid-century but in a more timeless domain ruled by Merchant and Ivory. The fun of parsing exactly what the school led by a headmistress played with chilly hauteur by Charlotte Rampling is all about peters out early on, certainly before the central trio, Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) morph into their adult incarnations (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley, respectively). The children are subjected to a sort of tyranny of healthfulness—they must stay well at all costs—and they are all familiar with horrific fates that met those children who dared try to escape, but all other pertinent information is doled out by the teaspoon.

It’s a strategy that begins to backfire mainly because the world of the film feels unpersuasive. Rather than surrender, the wary viewer stands on the cusp of suspended disbelief and shouts skeptical questions into the void: Why haven’t they learned to create synthetic organs? Has no one ever escaped from confinement? What if a clone’s original dies in a fiery blaze? The void shouts back: But what about Keira Knightley in a Cousin It fringe? And how do you feel about rolling English horizons and wheezy, sawing strings? What have you got against an ambitious new twist on a classic, doomed love triangle?

What I didn’t have—what the film doesn’t manage—is a connection with the characters, which can save even the loftiest concept from muddled defeat. Mulligan is magnetic, Garfield seems a little lost in an underwritten part (Alex Garland adapted the novel for the screen) and Knightley is poignant in her final scenes, but they can’t quite pull the film together. There are a couple of nicely wrought moments in which a character is shown to connect to their predicament and forward the otherwise halting narrative. When Kathy plays a tape given to her by her beloved Tom in her room, the camera lingers as the lyrics—a soul number that features the titular refrain—begins to take hold. Music—especially popular music—is a message from the outside world; in that moment it articulates the message Kathy has already received—about her feelings for Tom—but not quite translated.

Ethical considerations come and go in the form of Sally Hawkins, a teacher whose ambivalence about keeping the students in the dark about their fates leads her to spill the beans, and there is a gambit about students with an aptitude for art—those who can prove they have souls—being spared at least for a little while. As far as I was concerned any debate about clones being all too human ended the moment the jealous, beautiful young Lucy decided to pinch Tom from Kathy simply because she could. Much dramatic energy is diverted, over the 15 years the film covers, into the idea of couples who are truly in love being granted deferrals from donation, but the story—clearly a resource-rich mine of ethical and emotional themes—is fragmented to the point of inertia.

Eleventh hour reparations are made, turnabouts occur and organs are plucked, but little is felt. 'Maybe none of us understand what we live through," Kathy says, questioning the difference between clones and their models. 'Or feel we’ve had enough time." As a closing note, I couldn’t help thinking that reminding viewers of the preciousness of time at the end of two misshapen, poorly spent hours was probably not the way to go.