A science-fiction romance steeped in mystery and despair, Never Let Me Go is probably best approached with little to no advance information or expectations, which is the same way the film’s characters experience their lives. We first meet the protagonists as pre-teen students in a well-appointed British boarding school in 1978, where they’re engaged in the usual business of clique-building and innocent boyfriend/girlfriend games. Then a new teacher arrives and tells them all a secret about who they are and why they’re there. Jump ahead to 1985, where three of the classmates—played by Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and the film’s narrator, Carey Mulligan—are living on a collective farm, and enduring the petty jealousies and spite of a garden-variety love triangle. Jump ahead again, to 1994, and the three old friends are still dealing with the ramifications of their shared past.
Never Let Me Go was directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s a more-than-game effort to put across some emotionally tricky material. Romanek and Garland are dealing with characters who’ve grown up sheltered, so they try to replicate that mindset in the viewers by maintaining a measured, reserved tone that often comes off as too rigid. Then, when they need to punch home Ishiguro’s points about the lingering effects of childhood, they do so a little too hard. The movie is uneven, largely because it’s trying something unusual and ambitious.
But that unusual ambition also makes it deeply moving. The fantasy elements are woven into a powerful story, all about how people reflect on their lives, and about what makes those lives meaningful. Like all of us, Garfield, Knightley, and Mulligan grapple with the common confusion of their upbringing, seeking explanations for the lies and rumors that defined who they became.