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Melancholy Never Let Me Go Bends Genres

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 07, 2013
Melancholy <i>Never Let Me Go</i> Bends Genres

DVD Release Date: February 1, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: October 15, 2010 (wide)
Rating: R (for sexual content and nudity)
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction, Adaptation
Run Time: 103 min
Director: Mark Romaneck
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Charlotte Rampling

"I embrace my loneliness because it's my own." — Russian axiom

History's most inspiring moments are those when people rise up against their oppressors.  In our movies, we expect nothing less.  If a person or people have been controlled or enslaved, we don't just want to see the protagonists overcome; we automatically assume they will.  In Never Let Me Go, they don't—nor do they even try.

For as odd as that may seem, not rebelling is actually the norm.  By and large, "settling" is what people do, in circumstances both grave and mundane.  When faced with obstacles, the natural human inclination is to resign rather than revolt. 

Most stories would simplify that tendency to a result of fear and cowardice.  The truth, however, is much more nuanced than that, and it's one Never Let Me Go has proper empathy for:  people don't rebel when the cost is losing whom they love, or being torn from all they know.

Oh—and it's a theme explored in a slightly-skewed alternate universe of the latter twentieth century.

Based on the book by acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), Never Let Me Go is a genre-bending indie drama that blindsides with a shocking revelation about twenty minutes in (a "whoa" twist I won't divulge here, though previews do).  It takes place in the '70s, '80s and '90s, yet feels like a period piece, and then becomes something more.

The setting is an elite boarding school in the English countryside.  It's a sub-culture in a time warp, by design and purpose; an England that time forgot.  The students are all orphans; no parents, no siblings, no family to speak of.  That they attend such an exclusive institution would seem a wonderful example of societal altruism. 

The real motive, however, is much more sinister, and we learn of it as the kids do from one teacher whose conscience can no longer suppress the truth.  It literally redefines their reality, not only revealing their intended destinies but even exposing the very nature of their origins.

Before this revelation, we see the core relationships form—two girls and one boy—at the grade school level.  Though set against a rigidly structured environment (and cold, de-saturated aesthetic), an air of nostalgia emerges from innocence, particularly as affection grows between young Kathy and the school's shy, awkward outcast Tommy.  Ruth, pretty and popular, enters and complicates this dynamic.  Soon, and inexplicably, she seduces Tommy for her own.  Kathy is crushed but the feelings are never spoken of, and the three remain close as they grow older.

Now in their teens (played by Oscar-nominees Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and notable newcomer Andrew Garfield of The Social Network), sexuality begins to complicate things further.  Feelings are still unaddressed, and unspoken tensions remain even as a mature Kathy finds the grace to live in that tension.  That grace is true love for Tommy, desiring his happiness above her own.

True to Ishiguro's source material, the melodrama is extraordinarily restrained even as we sense powerful, surging emotions.  Dynamics between the three become even more complex and heightened after the big, disturbing reveal occurs, as they learn why they (and their classmates) will never be free. 

Their resignation to fate surprises us mostly because movies have trained us to expect the opposite—but to see it unfold elicits parallels to our own compromises.  It also reflects a very un-American trait common to both British and Japanese cultures (from which Ishiguro mutually descends), that of accepting one's fate with dignity.  Submission, at times, can be noble—especially when selfless.  Indeed, history's greatest example of that is Christ at Gethsemane, wanting the cup to pass but choosing to accept it anyway.

Issues of class suppression by the Elites (also common to British and Asian cultures) are inherent as is, by extension, the value and depth of one's soul—examined, in part, by the denial of it.  At the core of it all is the most universal sentiment:  that life is short.  As a result, decisions matter; they resonate, have consequences, and often set a course we can never fully see until time has passed and we can't get it back. 

Ruth's selfishness causes the most pain and, ultimately, the most painful regrets.  Under the circumstances, Ruth is both villain and victim, unjustified in what she robs from Kathy and Tommy but sympathetic as it's her only means of survival.  She is manipulative, but broken.  Keira Knightly embodies this conflict with heartless calculation that softens to a sad humanity, born of guilt.  It is a powerful performance—her best—and is equaled in counterpoint by Carey Mulligan's compassionate, heartbreaking turn as Kathy.

Director Mark Romaneck (One Hour Photo) crafts the precise screenplay by Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) with artful melancholy.  An undercurrent of sadness and tragedy runs throughout, and builds, tempered by respites of beauty, humor, and tenderness (or a mix of all—as in a poignant fish-out-of-water diner scene, or the fascination with art, or Kathy's passion for an old romantic song from which the film derives its title).  Sadly these are only respites, and redemption isn't found in justice but rather repentance and sacrifice.

As the film progresses, a helpless thought lingers: "poor them".  But after the final coda, you may come to see more of your own life than you first realized, or would like to admit.  Why do people stay in dead-end lives?  In jobs they hate?  Why don't they run?  Why don't they escape?  Not only is it harder to do than movies often romanticize, but concession is often born of hard choices, conflicting options, and responsibility to others.

We may choose the less attractive—and undeserved—life because we don't want to leave the people we love behind.  Their struggle becomes ours, and there is no shame in that compromise.  Indeed—there is righteousness.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  None.
  • Language/Profanity:  Virtually non-existent.  One use of "God" in exclamation. 
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Images of topless women in a magazine.  Sex is heard off-camera, then briefly seen (though private parts are not exposed).  Sex in a hospital bed is implied, not seen.  One woman kisses another on the lips.  Middle school age girls talk about losing one's virginity, but not in graphic terms (more wondering about who will be first). 
  • Violence/Other:  None, although surgical procedures are briefly portrayed, including incisions and organs.