Hailsham, the elite English school portrayed in Never Let Me Go, has a lot in common with Hogwarts. Its gifted students receive special training, along with potent spells and dangers. The headmistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), has the gaunt majesty of a female Dumbledore. And like Harry Potter, the kids of Hailsham including Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are full-time residents; their school is their world.
But in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel and in the poignant, troubling and altogether splendid new film version, these three kids who grow up to be played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley are far from the precocious teens of the J.K. Rowling franchise. Twelve or 13 when the film begins, in 1978, they are sweet and somehow unformed. They respond to the smallest perks like an old George Formby movie or a rummage sale of gewgaws with an infant's innocent rapture. And they're afraid to venture beyond the school walls, where it's rumored that mutilation and starvation await the curious or wandering child. The tales must be true, Ruth says. "Who'd make up stories as horrible as that?"
Ah, what is childhood if not the grim fairy tales and horrible lies that adults tell the young? For most of their time at Hailsham, the kids remain ignorant of their secret mission. Those who have not read the book and wish to be shielded from a major plot point that comes 25 minutes in should stop reading now. Do see the movie which premieres at the Telluride Film Festival before opening in North American theaters Sept. 15 then come back and we'll talk.
Even among the creative team, there's debate on how much prior knowledge viewers should bring to the film. Director Mark Romanek, confronted with a one-word definition of the children, says, "I'd love it if people wouldn't use that word talking about it to people who haven't seen it." Ishiguro disagrees. Even when the novel came out, he says, "in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could concentrate on other aspects of the book."
So here it is: the Hailsham children are clones. Advanced science has engineered them to serve as healthy donors for the human population; they will "reach completion" die in their 20s or 30s after three or four organs have been harvested. Some, like Kathy, spend a few years serving as "carers," comforting the donors before joining their lot.
Ishiguro shrinks from the term science fiction, but that's what this is a futurist vision set in the past in an alternative England. His fable is a cousin of (though not a clone of) the speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick whose short story "The Impostor" and novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner) describe robots living in the misapprehension that they are human and of Logan's Run, in which people lead an idyllic existence under a giant dome until they are killed off at 30.
Any story about what it means to be a clone implicitly asks what it is to be human. This movie's creatures have all the yearnings that the rest of us do. They fall in love; they scheme and dream. As children, the altruistic Kathy and the moody Tommy form a bond that might ripen into love, but the more competitive Ruth cozies up to Tommy and steals him away. This is the romantic triangle that continues through the second and third acts in 1985, when the three stay at a halfway house while they wait to be called to duty, and 1993, when Tommy and Ruth have become donors and Kathy a carer and that should transfix even those viewers wondering when the horror-movie plot will kick in and the clone monster pop out.
Nor is this an insurrectionist Attack of the Clones. When the replicants learn the role they've been designed for, they do not rebel; they submit. This ostensible passivity may perplex some U.S. audiences even more than the humanoid plot twist. "It's not a very American theme, is it?" says Ishiguro. "It's antithetical to the American creed of how you should face setbacks that if you fight back, love conquers all." No, it's more a Japanese creed, that accepting one's fate is a form of heroism.