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Never let me go: What makes us human?

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What makes us human? Simon Hardy reviews Never let me go, a stark humanist tale which takes a swipe at unethical science in the modern age

Kathy in Never let me go, played by Carey Mulligan

Never let me go (2010), directed by Mark Romanek is based on the 2005 book of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro. The film does not stray far from the book both in plot and tone, but Romanek has crafted a brilliant movie that stands in its own right. It deals with themes of fate, love, science versus morality and the struggle between duty and freedom.

The story centres on three children at Hailsham, which appears at first to be merely a posh boarding school although the clothing appears 1950s even though the film starts in the 1960s. The children play, are made to do sport and be creative with paintings and drawings. Their health is paramount to the stern faced teaching staff. The children tell tales of the terrible things that happen to children who stray beyond the boundaries of the school gates. Kathy is young and sensitive, withdrawn slightly and seemingly wiser than most. Ruth is slightly precocious, she projects an air of confidence which hides her deeper insecurities. Tommy is a victim, bullied by the other boys he is no good at sports or the artwork they are constantly made to do. In short they are representative of normal children you find in any school anywhere in the world.

One day a new teacher calmly tells the children in her geography class that they are clones who one day will be called up to donate organs for the real humans. The children say nothing - they seem to have already realised. They carry on as if nothing had changed. There is no epiphany or rage, only acceptance. They are part of a medical programme developed in the 1950s which within years is allowing the rest of us to live for much much longer, the film indicates that by 1967 people were living to at least one hundred.

The remaining two acts of the film centre on the 'grown up' children, first as they move out of the school and to the cottages where they remain locked away in the countryside until they are called up in their early twenties to start "donating". But this film is not science fiction, it is entirely a story of human emotion and society that we recognise today, but with a device which draws out the points that it wishes to make.

The power of the movie comes from multiple paths, all of which converge on the notion of fate. The idea of clones being used to harvest organs is not a new one, another recent movie, The Island, was based on the same idea. But in this movie there is one crucial difference between the brash explosive Hollywood thriller of The Island and the sedate, subdued colourations of Never let me go. In The Island when the clones find out who they are and what they are for, this realisation sparks in them a desire to not only meet their original versions but to demand their rights, to resists and fight back against the system, in this case depicted as the usual men-in-suits-with-guns who hunt them down. Indeed there is no conspiracy, now attempt to 'get to the bottom of things' - there is no final show down with the National Donor Programme who runs everything.

The reaction to the revelation in Never let me go is entirely different. The clones on the most fundamental level all accept their fate. In fact they are even proud to be donors, they have the chance to give life to others who might otherwise die. But of course every time they go through a "collection" it leaves them weaker, closer to death. Between each other they talk about how many collections they think they can survive. The circulate stories of those that have reached four collections, few manage more than that. In the third act of the movie the collections have begun and the young energetic children from Hailsham are gone, replaced by pale, sickly young adults, their bodies covered in scars, limping - growing paler. But this is the order of things. Their lives are being sacrificed so that the rest of us can live.

It is the contradiction between this acceptance and their very human struggle to love which is the driving force at the core of the film. It is tragedy in the purest form, as inescapable as it is necessary. But there seems to be a ray of hope. Although they accept their fate, when they hear rumours that their collections can be deferred for up to three years if they can prove that they are in love, Kathy and Tommy seize the chance and try and make their case for true love and happiness. Despite their best attempts to prove their humanity they cannot succeed, the rumours are false - there is no escape from their fates. Society would rather take the collections and not ask any questions. The final scenes when Tommy, faced with the inevitability of his impending death (here simply called "completion") lets out a primal scream of rage and fury, the sheer helplessness of their situation weighs down on the viewer in an incredibly powerful way.

So what morals do we leave at the door to achieve long life and defy sickness? The movie is a powerful manifesto demanding the primacy of ethics in the pursuit of progress. The movie damns not the government agency (although maybe it is privatised!) that is doing this, it levels the emotional charge of acquiesence in the face of monstrous crimes against society for letting it happen, in fact for wanting it to happen.

Indeed the film is a moving picture image of the kind of anti-enlightenment thinking of Frankfurt school theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The idea that the enlightenment, here articulated as the domination of nature by human will, which leads onto the inevitable domination of humanity by its own instrumental rationality, is the dialectic of Never let me go. The clones are clearly human, the artwork from Hailsham was part of a desperate attempt by reformers to prove that the clones had souls, but the wider public no longer cared. We see the clones not as ends in themselves, complete humans developed by science, but as means to an end, or rather as a means to escape our own ends through harvesting their organs. Rationality without ethics is monstrous, it is the cold decision making process of a machine not of a human. The scenario depicted in Never let me go is the result of the liberal notion of progress shorn of its responsibility to humanity. On another level the clones are all children, they are all young. The movie is telling us that the world we create for future generations must not be one without choice, with no capacity for an emancipatory outlook or struggle. It points to the exploitation of the younger in the interests of the older, of generational interests that predetermine your life from the moment you are born, maybe even from the moment you are conceived.

Of course the easy way out would have been the one The Island took, that some of the clones escape and live amongst us as normal people. Or there could have been a revolution, the clones rise up, set up underground networks to escape and free themselves, perhaps like the sewer dwellers in Demolition Man, that other example of quality Hollywood film making. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have no such vision of liberation, they have developed no idea of themselves as human, they accept that they are donors, but the tragic circumstances of their situation do not escape them. The despair might considered existential, but this would be wrong. Their lives are ordered, rational, consequential, they fit into a complex society and are an essential component of it, their fate is not arbitrary or merely the result of some random concatenation of patterns that we do not understand. They understand everything well enough, it is just that society has given them no way out.

A brief point on the photography, it is a wonderous murky mix of grey, brilliantly capturing the english countryside and seaside towns. Some of the shots are almost epic in their composition, the scene where Kathy, Ruth and Tommy go to the beach together where an old abandoned boat rests on the sand is particularly memorable. The world they live in looks familiar but it is slightly different, everything seems slightly anachronstic for the different time periods, the clothing is not quite right. It seemed to suggest that the lack of disease and death in the world was slowing down the development of society, that the drive for development and new inventions or fashions was slowly coming to a halt. It looked like a society that was in decline.

The film makers have said that the final message of the film is that no matter whether you die at 28 like the clones or at 100 years of age, you will always regret not having loved enough or achieved enough. The point is to make of life what you can for the length of time you have. This emotional conclusion is fine as it stands, but Never let me go is so much richer than that. Its social conclusion is pressing; the cruelty of the human condition in a world of fixed orders, hierarchies and social co-ordinates and the urgency of humanity, the urge of emancipation that must emerge out of the hopelessness.