Three young people experience friendship, love and a horrific manifestation of modern science in “Never Let Me Go” — that’s the non-spoiler summary of this sci-fi horror story, which is wrapped around a relationship triangle unfolding in a world just a few kinks different than our own.
Directed by Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) and adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, this tragic melodrama is atmospherically hypnotic, visually splendid and impressively acted. But it doesn’t achieve essential emotional impact.
Spoilers, or at least semi-spoilers, follow.
Romanek keeps the tone gentle but eerie and the look of things beautifully bleak in this story set in Britain in recent times in an alternate universe where people routinely live past the age of 100. The drama follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), first as they come of age at a boarding school that is hardly Hogwarts, and later as young adults.
“Special” is how the isolated school describes its exceedingly healthy-looking students. They soon learn why: The children are clones whose organs, when mature, will be harvested to prolong the lives of people in the outside world.
Postgraduation, Kathy and Tommy have long loved each other, but jealous Ruth has maneuvered to get Tommy for herself.
The three-way friendship splinters, and Kathy becomes a “carer,” providing support to those undergoing harvesting surgery. Generally, a person “completes” (dies) after two or three operations. With time running out, Tommy and Kathy apply for a “deferral,” a status that, according to rumors, couples in love can obtain.
The film’s message is no revelation — life is short, love and friendship should be cherished — and Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland dramatize these and other themes engagingly and intelligently enough to allow the film to succeed as mildly affecting viewing for grownups who enjoy a little sci-fi in their tea and don’t mind downer subjects.
Romanek creates an engrossingly eerie atmosphere. His images — a lone large tree suggesting loss and sorrow, for starters — are often exquisite. Garland’s script makes the dystopian scenario believable.
Yet the surface silkiness comes at the expense of greater impact.
We acknowledge the drama’s sadness but don’t feel deeply moved. The horror of the organ harvesting also goes down too smoothly. The reasoning behind this nightmare is barely addressed. This is a story that needs to seriously haunt us.
None of this should be blamed on the actors, all of whom shine. Mulligan, whose Kathy looks both barely out of childhood and resigned beyond anyone’s years, is particularly effective.
Charlotte Rampling, as the school’s scary headmistress, stands out among the supporting cast.
Never Let Me Go
Two and a half stars
Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Mark Romanek
Running time 1 hour 43 minutes