To give away details of Never Let Me Go’s plot would be a great disservice to the film, which unveils thrilling discoveries without ever becoming a thriller. Similarly, it’s a sci-fi movie that has nothing to do with futurism, space, or aliens. Mostly though, Never Let Me Go is a meditation on longing in that grand tradition of British novels (and later films) like The Remains of the Day. And what do you know? Never Let Me Go is based on the novel of the same name by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day.
What’s there to review if not the plot? Thankfully, the complex characters are absolutely paramount to the story. Bright young things Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Andrew Garfield (replacing Tobey Maguire in the next Spiderman) play Kathy H. and Tommy, two star-crossed lovers who meet while in a boarding school/orphanage in the idyllic English countryside. As tweens, they make it to hand-holding phase just as mean girl Ruth sets her sights on Tommy. Being a nice British lass, Kathy eschews American reality TV-style hair pulling and table flipping for longing glances and a painful friendship triangle with Ruth and Tommy that lasts through adolescence. Just when the viewer wants to step in on behalf of poor, mousey Kathy and sucker punch narcissistic Ruth (played by Keira Knightley), fate intervenes and deals the blow itself. Throughout the film, the actors navigate their characters’ dilemmas with depth and warmth, making them seem extremely … human.
That’s as close as we’ll get to a spoiler alert. Overarching Kathy H.’s, Ruth’s, and Tommy’s personal trajectories to and away from each other, is an alternate reality U.K., set in 1978-1994. While it looks thoroughly normal, with cloudy seaside towns, typical period clothing and vehicles, the alternate part of this world is that in the late ’60s, a medical breakthrough was discovered, giving doctors the opportunity to “cure the incurable.” (Don’t worry, this is explained on the first two title cards.) People are now regularly living past age 100. If, right now, you are thinking: “cure the incurable? That’s too good to be true!” Well, it is. And the film’s biggest strength is subtle exploration of the moral quandaries (and society’s neat sidestepping of them) associated with saving some lives at the expense of others.