Never Let Me Go

Year: 2011
Production Co: DNA Films
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Mark Romanek
Producer: Andrew MacDonald
Writer: Alex Garland/Kazuo Ishigaro
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Ella Purnell

Like the so-great-it's-almost-perfect Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film so cleverly keeps its premise hidden behind a curtain of normality in a world we know and recognise. In Gondry and Kaufman's masterpiece it was about a guy going through a painful break-up, here it's about three boarding school kids and their jealousies, hopes and dreams.

It's very hard not to give away the reveal of the film because it's the backbone of the whole story. But I can't in good conscience spoil it for you because discovering it for myself was very much a part of the beautiful experience of watching it. All I can say is that this is decidedly and unmistakably a science fiction film set (if you like) in an alternate universe.

It's particularly hard not to give the secret away because the film doesn't go out of its way to keep it for some huge climatic revelation, it's just the backdrop of these characters lives – in fact the onscreen text at the beginning lays most of it out for you, with a quietly outraged schoolteacher (Hawkins from Made in Dagenham) spelling out the rest for both us and the terrified children.

Ruth, Kathy and Tommy are growing up in a beautiful and stately old English manor boarding school where they have their lessons, make friendships, develop crushes and grow up with a future that's not often mentioned but casts a shadow something like the knowledge of death. Enigmatically termed 'completing', all we know about what they face is that it's something they'll go through between one and four times, and that they're unlikely to live to 30 because of it.

The first act of the film is of the trio as kids. Kathy likes Tommy, but – with a mean and jealous streak – Ruth works her way into his heart so that when we meet them again about ten years later as young adults, the soft spoken Tommy (Peter Parker-in-waiting Garfield) is still with the slightly bitchy Ruth (Knightley) while the smart but sad Kathy (Mulligan) looks on.

As they grow up their circle of friends hear rumours of official exemptions from their awful destinies, the same way we might dream about passing a university degree or getting our dream job. It's said if you can prove you're really in love with someone, it's grounds enough to escape the terrible fate you were born for and can get a 'deferral'.

Ruth and Tommy are pursuing the deferral everyone's heard about, trying to track down their former headmistress to plead their case and exploring the world for the first time. Just watch the scene in the seaside coffee shop, with kids in their late teens shuffling awkwardly and not knowing what to say as if they've just been released after being imprisoned away from society since birth. The terror and fascination at the world as Ruth, Tommy and Kathy order chips in a rough greasy spoon diner is heartbreaking.

In fact Knightley and Mulligan sell it almost single handedly with their performances (Garfield to a lesser extent – he doesn't have as much screen time and isn't as forefront in the story).

And director Mark Romanek does the rest. He bought very distinctive visuals to One Hour Photo and apparently abandoned The Wolfman to do this film (very good move, Mark), and he manages something extraordinary here. The whole tone of the film made me think of a well executed funeral – it's very beautiful but sad, cold and sombre, the efforts of life and love reaching very tentative fingers into a dark and cruel world.

Read any subtext you like into it about inescapable destiny, from poverty to bigotry because of skin colour, but without resorting to high tech pictures of brain scans and silver rooms with sliding doors, Romanek and screenwriter Alex (28 Days Later) Garland do a brilliant job of breathing life into the dark future that awaits these characters and the hope they can find a way out of it.

Just like Eternal Sunshine, you can play any thirty second clip in the film and have no idea it's dealing with such futuristic and scientific themes. Whichever way you slice it, it's the almost perfect melding of tone with story.

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