It’s hard to imagine a Merchant Ivory-style production with the same concept as a Michael Bay movie, but that’s essentially what you get with Never Let Me Go, an intriguing and mostly successful combination of science fiction and chamber drama. Like Bay’s bombastic action epic The Island, Never Let Me Go is about a second class of citizens who are cloned and raised solely to provide donor organs for regular people in poor health. But instead of Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson on the run from explosions and gunfire, Never Let Me Go (based on a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro) has Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield navigating the perils of a romantic triangle. It uses the trappings of sci-fi to amplify the emotions associated with love and loss, since these characters generally can’t expect to live past 30. While anyone interested in the complex details of alternate history will be disappointed, the emotional moments ring true, and they’re what the movie’s really about.
Growing up in a group home that resembles a proper English boarding school, Kathy (Mulligan) falls for Tommy (Garfield), but her best friend Ruth (Knightley) scoops him up instead. The film captures the trio as preteens (played by different actors) in 1978, as young adults in 1985 and near the end of their short lives in 1994, giving the sweep of a lifelong love story to a period of less than 20 years. At times the hushed tone and deliberate pacing feels too subdued, but director Mark Romanek is able to find something profound in this fantastical concept, and Mulligan is excellent as a woman who spends nearly half her life watching her friends and peers die slowly. It’s the way that people deal with such extraordinary circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves, that makes Never Let Me Go quietly rewarding.