Science-fiction set in the future lets us off easy. Certainly, the present and past inform a writer’s vision of the future, but there is always the caveat that goes along with stating, “This is where we could be heading.” There’s a distance in the inherent comfort of recognizing that the chance to reform is present. Surely, we think, we will not let it get that bad.

Hence the subtle brilliance of the conceit of Never Let Me Go, the film based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, which is not set in the future but in the past. This is not where we are heading; it is where we have been and where we are.

The story is not about science or technology. It is about how the little lies people tell themselves in order to survive in the face of the unimaginable become the big lies that a society believes in order to live with the unthinkable. Ishiguro and screenwriter Alex Garland ignore those who benefit to dwell with those who suffer and die for others. The two groups never meet in the film or, in theory then, the world of the film. The system would fail in such an encounter, as it depends on keeping the downtrodden faceless, nameless entities.

They begin their role in society at boarding school. One of these is Hailsham, secluded in the English countryside. The children walk the halls and must swipe their own, personal bracelets against electronic checkpoints as they change classes. Lessons include role-playing scenarios of placing orders in a café, and art is a mandatory activity, with the best student work finding a place in a gallery. There are rumors — always rumors — that leaving the grounds will result in death, either at the hands of some unknown murderer in the woods or from starvation when they are refused reentry.

None of this is the least bit peculiar to anyone in this new breed of social class at Hailsham, including young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), who, like the rest of her schoolmates, only has a single letter for a surname. She keeps to herself, much like young Tommy (Charlie Rowe), although he is prone to teasing from his fellow students due to his lack of creative ability and his short fuse. A new guardian at the school Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) offers Kathy observations about Tommy’s behavior, and Kathy begins to talk with him. The young class gossip Ruth (Ella Purnell) notices and, much to Kathy’s chagrin, decides that Tommy is “the boy she likes more than all the others.”

Years pass, and now adult Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are off to the Cottages, where they have the freedom to do what they want on the grounds and, with permission, put those role-playing classes to good use in town. Kathy has waited for Tommy and Ruth to split, but she is still waiting, even seven years later.

The mystery behind Hailsham, the Cottages, and the essentially isolated nature of the existence of the trio and their peers is revealed by the end of the film’s first act. It is vitally important to just about every facet of the story, and yet the specific details are omitted. They are unnecessary to Kathy and the rest, so they are unimportant to us. Garland’s screenplay is more concerned with how they live with the knowledge of the paradox that their lives are indispensable and expendable.

Lies are key. The old stories of the deaths of children who wander away from Hailsham keep the current herd from leaving. A couple at the Cottages heard it told that Hailsham students are special and know of secret applications to withhold the inevitable — even if for a brief while. A young couple in love, after all, should have the privilege to spend some time together before they are sent to Completion Camp. Kathy cannot help but recall her experience and tell the poor lovers that she heard many stories herself, and most of them were false. The pair is shattered; their hope has died.

This is a system that depends upon hope. Language helps insulate them from the truth. Words like “complete” and “completion” evade what lies at the end of their task. No one speaks of parents, but Ruth travels into town to find a “possible” for an “original” working at a travel agency. Disappointed, she says what they all think: The only real place to look for a possible is in the gutter.

Therein lies the film’s warning. Any society that can view one type of human being as inferior is only steps away from finding the will within itself to deem another class as unworthy. It is not even as soothing a warning but an observation — a pattern that repeats itself over and over again.

So Garland lives with those deemed worthless. The love triangle is innocent in its familiarity. It is a cliché we take for granted; in the same way, everything in their lives is taken for granted. This is a story that accepts the face value and reads between the lines. The truth, already known but solidified in a late scene explaining why their creative potential in school was so important, shows that. “You poor creatures,” a helpful voice sympathizes. Even she does not realize that her word choice is infinitely condescending — an acknowledgment that even the caring see them as something less than human.

Mark Romanek directs with an overall effect of everyday sterility. Nothing is out of the ordinary, even with hints of medical and scientific breakthroughs whispered in the background. Never Let Me Go presents a system that is insidious and rotten to its very core and dares us to ponder what parts are distortion and which are reflection.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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