THERE ARE TWO CHALLENGES facing Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel.
The first is communicating to audiences just what kind of film they're watching. In the movie, which hews very closely to the novel, a science-fictional premise is downplayed almost to nonexistence. Three friends—Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield—grow up in a world where human cloning has been institutionalized, and clones are regularly harvested for their organs. The friends are clones; they're raised in a special school, kept isolated from the general public for most of their lives, until the time comes for them to begin their "donations." But this grim, politicized premise doesn't offer a predictable storyline—there's no suggestion that these characters might overthrow their government or insist on their humanity. Never Let Me Go is a love story, and a coming-of-age story, about attractive young people who are going to die early because the government is going to steal their innards.
Once you've swallowed the premise, it remains to understand the characters. In order for the audience to release their expectations about what should happen in a movie about hot teenagers whose organs will one day be harvested—i.e., that the hot teenagers will try to avoid having their organs harvested—the audience needs to understand the extent to which these characters have been conditioned to accept their fates, to understand that these clones' acceptance of death at the hands of their government is as total as our understanding of death, period.
Mark Romanek's adaptation handles the first challenge beautifully—there's a chilly creepiness to the boarding school where the children are raised, a Hogwarts-for-clones with security cameras and tracking devices instead of magic. But the film doesn't know how to deal with the basic interiority of Never Let Me Go's most crucial themes. The amount of time the children spend at their boarding school, growing indoctrinated with and accustomed to the purpose of their existence, is given short shrift in the film, and as a result a key concept—how horrific circumstances can come to seem perfectly normal—is jostled to the side by the bigger question of why the hell these attractive, healthy teenagers don't just run away.
The film is well cast and beautifully shot, though Carey Mulligan needs to figure out a way to distinguish her face from Michelle Williams'. But charming young actors and drizzily gorgeous cinematography can't make up for storytelling that manages to be both tedious and rushed, and fails to communicate the basic substance of its material.