Clad in grey clothes and golden complexions, Hailsham students are special creatures. Raised to fulfil a very specific biological purpose in an age where life expectancy exceeds 100, their lives are empty vessels propelled directly from preschool to school, through adolescence, and directly into respite centres where they care for, or become, donors. Placing futuristic scientific treatments into a period setting (in this case, 1970s), is immediately unsettling.
Growing up at Hailsham, we are introduced to Cathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) in a point-by-point set-up of their curious lives. Though the child actors of Never Let Me Go feel somewhat Harry Potter-ish, though, their gossipy cliques and painfully childish competition are offset by a stellar performance from Sally Hawkins. As newcomer Miss Lucy who connects with and battles with a desire to enlighten these strange children, her questioning glances and tidy, unpracticed explanations inject a healthy dose of unrehearsed realism to a world thick with convention and rules. Though the film makes berth at Hailsham, it really begins when Cathy and co are sent to farmhouses known as ‘the Cottages’ in the English countryside. A fragile-looking teen, Cathy carries her questions and insecurities in her wan frame, quietly searching for the answers behind their strange existence.
Best friend and crush Tommy, sequestered from Cathy’s affections by Ruth, is poignantly played by an adorably naive Andrew Garfield. Their innate chemistry and inept fondness carries a sincerity as hapless as it is heartbreaking. The disjointed, bitty selection of plot incidences from Ishiguro’s novel are bound together thus; betraying the undercurrents of a relationship between friends shackled together for life in the confines of huge, constricting homes and stifling rumours.
Stories grow up around them as they meander through life with their awkward make-do trinkets and fashion sense. Like Ishiguro’s students, they share an intoned way of speaking that’s at once innocent and world-weary, all the while conveying a the cramped egos of children denied the love and nurturing of growing up. Stunning locations and beautiful set design converge with a subtly piercing pallette, melding real English countryside and old town beauty with a world that’s not quite our own. Though initially piecemeal, Romanek’s vision transforms Ishiguro’s ethereal novel of questions into a well-crafted story of tragic love.
Never Let Me Go is released on DVD in the UK on 27 June.