An incidental sci-fi story that favors elegant imagery over content, "Never Let Me Go" has plenty of emotional baggage to spare. Adapting Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel about an alternative history where clones are bred to donate organs, Mark Romanek (directing his first feature since 2002's "One Hour Photo") sets his sights on a mini-saga that radiates tragedy in each scene. At the same time, the tale of three young donors (aptly portrayed by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) coming of age and longing to see the world allows Romanek to prop up the mood with a sharp evocation of youth alienation.
Beginning in the late 1970s, "Never Let Me Go" opens at the mysterious boarding school Hailsham, where teachers raise the donors to express themselves while monitoring their health at the behest of a cold headmistress (Charlotte Rampling). In an apparent attempt to mimic the novel, Romanek at first underplays the creepiness, hinting at the entrapment at hand (students must wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements at every moment). Once the premise comes together, however, thanks to the sudden revelation of a guilt-ridden teacher played by Sally Hawkins, the students slowly begin coping with the predetermined limitations of their lifespan. Rather than acting out or asking questions, the children accept their eventual destination and wander through the next two decades fully aware of the ticking clock.
Gorgeously photographed by Adam Kimmel in an autumnal palette, "Never Let Me Go" has more visual sheen than storytelling polish. Having established the central problem, Alex Garland's script never takes it very far. A dramatic situation slowly accumulates, but only holds interest for the sizable efforts of its leads. As Kathy, the movie's passive observer and voiceover narrator, Mulligan (one-upping her similarly disaffected role in "An Education") plays an alienated young woman seemingly at peace with her fate from day one.
As she and her close group of friends grow up together with the full knowledge of their eventual demise, the situation between them grows complicated. Kathy's friend Ruth (Knightley) develops a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), causing the inevitable love triangle that gives these doomed protagonists a reason to survive. Having heard rumors that clones in love can request deferrals for their donations, they debate the prospects of prolonging their lives. It's obvious from early on that Tommy and Kathy belong together, but the movie's title creates a sad, ironic counterpoint to such romantic idealism. Their hopes for a future together amount to a vanity play.
The couple's inability to escape their grim requirements (living in a disease-free society that expects their complicity, there's nowhere for them to go) makes for a claustrophobic viewing experience that's also strangely warmhearted, as though Romanek intends his study of ephemeral lives as a metaphor for mortality itself. Although quietly unnerving, "Never Let Me Go" mainly functions as an exercise in creating a solemn aura and not letting up. Whether or not Romanek intended it to feel one-note, at least it's a well-orchestrated one.