We are born into a system that we never resist, we do our job and then we die.
This may be a platitude, but in “Never Let Me Go”, the story of Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, this logic takes on an altogether different significance.
You see, the children playing in the idyllic fields of Hailsham (a slightly sinister English boarding school) at the beginning of the movie are actually clones who’ll have their organs harvested in their early twenties. The film makes no bones about it and it’s pretty clear early on that this is going to happen. Death for them is called “completion”, and as they cycle through their short lives waiting to be shuttled off to a donor hospital (yes, they are called “donors”, as if the operation is voluntary), its shadow hangs over them. It haunts every glance, every glimmer of conversation and every interaction.
Even love, that all-powerful force that seems to sweep away the deathly machinery of bureaucracy in other narratives, is powerless to halt the inevitable. There is a rumour among the clone children that if they love one another enough, they can seek a deferral of their donations of up to four years or become a “carer” who looks after donors. But even these options can only postpone the eventual “completion”.
The love portrayed in the film is as helpless and fragile as the scene where the child Kathy holds onto a pillow, swaying slightly as she listens to a tape Tommy has bought her at the school “bumper” sale. The child is vulnerable in her cocoon as the camera circles ’round her and shows she is being watched by Ruth, who is planning to get Tommy for herself. Warm against the storm for a moment, we know she must drop the pillow and succumb soon.
Faced with such a dire situation, the characters of the movie never seem to resist. They become upset, emotional and depressed, but they still continue upon the path to their own impending oblivion. They seek a deferral, but they never try to run away. The characters do everything by the book, signing in and out of the “National Donor Programme’s” residences. And although they’re cushioned by the hollows and green lanes of the English countryside around them (beautifully captured by director Mark Romanek and rendered even more wonderful by Rachel Portman’s music), every moment of beauty is broken by the realisation that these characters are doomed.
Now, this blind acceptance of fate, especially such a horrible one, might seem unfamiliar to us, but then again, it’s closer to home than one might think. Even here at Yale, we are constantly integrating ourselves into a system that is horribly violent, preparing ourselves for years of suffering at an investment bank and getting depressed about the world, but never rocking the boat. After watching this film, the viewer (feeling perhaps slightly bereft of his/her vital organs!) is forced to make a comparison between the world of Tommy, Kathy and Ruth and his/her own. So why don’t you run away, why don’t you resist? Can’t you imagine anything beyond our own system?