Despite the award-winning actors that dominate the cover-art, it’s the earliest scenes, in which the main roles are played by child-actors, that are the most successful. They evoke a seemingly idyllic but sinister public-school life, in which the staff regard their pupils with hints of fear and the Hogwarts-style surroundings disguise huge hospital wards. The children, of course, are barely aware of their destinies, and so relate to each other as all schoolchildren would, sharing their ambitions for when they grow up and indulging in their first crushes.
This is the most interesting section of the film, and perhaps if more time had been spent developing the characters here the tragedy would be more compelling. Instead, as soon as the central storyline and a cagey sort of love triangle has been established the action moves ten years into the future, ready to pack the next two thirds with as many tasteful shots of the central cast confronting their fate in as winsomely beautiful fashion as possible.
Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) in particular are no better than sketches. Their story-arcs progress like a deliberately miserable game of Consequences, each grim development surpassing the previous one. Despite dominating the posters, Knightley’s role is relatively minor, amounting to a couple of scenes where she acts as a vaguely antagonistic counterpoint to the parsimonious Kathy and a couple more to do what she does best; that is, look attractively wan. Garfield is not given much more to work with, but his is the only character who seems to exist outside of a bubble of passive ennui.
In a scene in which Tommy and Kathy track down their old teachers he manages to convey a mixture of innocence, optimism and despair that’s genuinely poignant in a film that’s usually content to be maudlin.
In the lead role, Carey Mulligan wanders through events like a ghost, providing an occasional voice over to stress what little plot there is. In a film characterised by bovine passivity, Kathy is particularly inert. Her expression hardly ever deviates from one of detached wretchedness. Despite always enjoying the best luck of the three friends, she remains the most steadfastly gloomy. Theirs is a toxic relationship, with Kathy bringing out the others’ worst tendencies towards despondency. To match the tone of existential despair the film is shot in a soupy mélange of grubby greens and blues, favouring wintry countryside settings and endless grey skies. It’s a drab look that, coupled with the 1970s & 1980s settings, evokes those disturbing public information videos that used to be shown in schools about the perils of playing on railway lines.
Like those films, Never Let Me Go is queasy, but empty It paints itself as somehow allegorical, and touches listlessly on themes of love and sex and loss, without ever bothering to explore them. There are a few final words from Kathy about how we all waste our lives, but it’s an arbitrary afterthought thrown in to justify what is, essentially, a middlebrow example of the pornography of suffering, engineered primarily to satisfy the morbid curiosity of people who would never dream of watching one of those Channel 5 documentaries about the terminally ill.