Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Never Let Me Go

posted by Nell Minow
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality and nudity
Profanity:Some strong language
Nudity/Sex:Sexual references and situations, pornography
Violence/Scariness:Disturbing theme, some images of medical procedures and injuries, sad deaths
Diversity Issues:None
Movie Release Date:September 24, 2010
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality and nudity
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/Sex: Sexual references and situations, pornography
Alcohol/Drugs: None
Violence/Scariness: Disturbing theme, some images of medical procedures and injuries, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Movie Release Date: September 24, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, about a butler who devoted his life to service without questioning his master’s authority or the validity of his judgment became a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. And now his book, Never Let Me Go is a movie that while very different in genre addresses some of the same themes. Once again, the setting is the English countryside, and once again the main characters are born into a life of service that they do not question.


It’s a science fiction story without a single lab coat, spaceship, or gizmo. It isn’t even set in the future, but the recent past. It appears very much like the world we knew in the the 1980’s, but we are told before it begins that a medical discovery in 1952 has led to life expectancy of 100 years in 1967.

Then Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan of “An Education”) starts to tell us her story. She is a “carer,” and thinking back on her childhood at a school called Hailsham. As we go back to see her there with her friends Ruth and Tommy, it all seems perfectly normal at first. But there are some elements that seem strange. The headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) makes the usual speech after finding cigarette butts at the school, but why does she emphasize that for these children especially “keeping yourselves healthy is of paramount importance?” Why do they seem to have no families or even last names? And what is that panel on the wall that beeps when they casually touch their wrist to it every day as they come back indoors?


The excitement in the children’s lives comes from the visits by “Madame,” who examines their artwork and selects the items she thinks are the best for her gallery, and even more on the rare opportunities they have to buy trinkets with the tokens they are given for good behavior. They are very happy when they hear they are getting a “bumper crop” and enjoy their treasures but to our eyes the items look like garage sale cast-offs. These are not poor children; they attend school in an almost-idyllic countryside setting. But they do not seem to have anything.

Just once, a teacher tells them the truth, and then she is fired. SPOILER ALERT: the secret not fully revealed until the end of the book is disclosed much earlier in the movie so I am going to include it here. If you don’t want to know, skip this paragraph. The fate of these children has already been decided. They have been bred for use as spare parts. They are to be kept healthy and happy like farm animals until, in their 20’s, they will become “donors.” And after three or four “donations,” they will “complete.” Their purpose is to give of themselves literally and ultimately to keep others alive.


Director Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) understands that just as “Rosemary’s Baby” tapped into a whole new category of dread by putting a Gothic story in modern Manhattan, giving us an alternate reality that seems so familiar to us is eerie and unnerving. It is not familiar through experience, set in the recent past. But it is also familiar through movies. The accents and Hailsham setting lull us into a Merchant-Ivory/Masterpiece Theater civilized world of tea being served at four. The fact that the truest horror happens off screen is haunting. When the headmistress says, “We were answering questions no one wanted asked,” it is as devastating as any gory attack by zombies or aliens. When the characters show their humanity by hoping for a better outcome, we see how much has been taken from them because they have no idea of how to insist on it.


The title comes from a “bumper crop” treasure, a used audio cassette by a torchy 60’s singer (performed by Jane Monheit), given to Kathy by Tommy.  She plays it over and over.  What does it mean to have someone who wants to hold on to you that way?  Kathy knows how it feels to care deeply about someone.  She loves Tommy.  As they grow up, though, it is Ruth who becomes his — what?  Girlfriend does not seem the right word as they have little sense of what that means.  Ruth does tell Kathy that she will not let Tommy go.  But then things change and as she has to let go of so much more, she thinks about what she can leave behind, what will give her life meaning beyond the limited scope that has been set for her.


Romanek, best known for music videos, is stronger on visuals than with story.  He does very well in creating a world so believable, so thoroughly familiar and sturdily institutional, that the slight variances from what we know quickly seem natural.  Like the people who proposed and approved and benefit from this system, the ones who are never seen and hardly referred to, we can watch without considering too deeply the consequences and significance of what we see — for a while.  

The three sections of the film are starkly different in architecture and color scheme.  Hailsham shows a little of the benign neglect of institutions that have existed for hundreds of years and are expected to be around forever.  After graduation, they move to “cottages,” rural, rustic, remote.  They make shy ventures into the world but can barely order a soda in a restaurant and feel most at home on a beach where an abandoned ship washed up on the shore somehow seems to resonate with them, an empty vessel, once useful, with nowhere to go.

  • Williams

    We met several years ago in connection with The Corporate Library, and our family has used Movie Mom as a resource ever since.
    The website that hosts you now is awful. It is not the content, for I rarely go past your posts, but the abundance of pop-ups and the time it takes to load information. We are Apple users, and I start removing my remaining hair when I have to watch the spinning beachball for 5 minutes. Maybe its our Safari browser, but I am not in the mood to worry about stuff like that. I plug in the computer. I expect it work. I avoid sites that crash my session.
    You should speak to the web designers at beliefnet or find another website to host your reviews. While I am sure there is a commercial connection to all of this, your reviews are helpful. I am just becoming too exasperated to navigate this site, and it is leading our relationship with Movie Mom to a sad ending.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, Williams — much appreciated and I will pass your concerns along to our tech people. I tear my hair out at times, too, but the fact of life on the internet at the moment is that most people would rather wait for the spinning rainbow ball and knock out a couple of pop-ups than pay for the content. Maybe some day we’ll be able to offer viewers a choice.

  • bboyneko

    Why do you put “donate” in quotation marks like that? I would think after having read the novel and seen the film you’d know the kids are literal donors. They go willingly and proudly to their fate. They have every opportunity to run and never do. I think you missed major themes of the film if you believe they are harvested against their will. The movie is about accepting your fate of death and understanding that i n the brief time we are alive it is of utmost importance to love and be at peace with those around you.

  • Nell Minow

    Hi, boyneko! Thanks for the comment! I used “donate” in quotes because like “complete” that is a euphemism used to soften and conceal what is really happening. I have a very different interpretation of the themes of the book and movie. These are humans who never have a choice. They are guided and manipulated from their earliest childhood to be utterly dependent and obedient. As in the other book by the author, The Remains of the Day, the focus is on someone who accepts his fate not as a conscious choice but because he never allows himself to think about any other possibility. These characters have been persuaded that they are less than human. So there can be no acceptance; they never had a choice.

  • Shary

    “Never Let Me Go” is the most depressing movie I’ve seen in a long time. The story line–brainwashed young adults that are actually clones created solely to supply body parts for the sick and elderly–is distasteful to the point of being obscene, all the more so because it’s done in a contemporary British setting rather than one that’s futuristic. I left the theater wishing I’d spent my money on something more uplifting. From the standpoint of the craft itself, however, I would have to say the acting was good.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, Shary. It sounds like the movie was not what you were expecting, certainly the case if you were looking for something uplifting. I believe the setting was deliberately chosen to make the story more disturbing and to make us ask ourselves how close we already are to that kind of disregard for the humanity of others. It is interesting that one of the other commenters thought it was inspiring that these people were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Like you, what I found most unsettling was the sense that they never had a choice. I appreciate your comment, which will be very helpful to those who are trying to decide whether this movie is one they want to see.

  • Shakira

    This is totally creepy, but seems to have a pro-vegetarian message to it (which is good): These “farm animals” are people inside that are just like you. They love and suffer just like you, but you chop them up for consumption. You COULD grow single organs from stem cells as vegetarians get protein from soy, chia etc (as it contains all essential amino acids); but you prefer to take life from the innocent.

  • Nell Minow

    A fascinating thought, Shakira, thanks!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Penster

    I read the book and was disturbed that a love story could be juxtaposed against such a horrific theme with such calmness and very little reference to the mechanics of how this world of donors came to be and operated (pardon the pun). I found it very difficult to concentrate on the subject matter of relationships with such macabre subject matter on the periphery! The movie articulated or probably, visualised more than the book but also left me yearning for more. The recovery centers with donors on walking frames, wheelchairs, and one on crutches missing a leg – did he donate a leg? In what order are donations made that a donor may complete at 4 organs – kidney, reproductive bits, a lung, perhaps a pancreas (didn’t pay much attention in biology)or a limb. Heart and brain the last stop if you get that far? My thirst is for relatively prosaic mechanics of this world. These people who may or may not be considered to have souls are literally chopped to pieces and in finest tradition of concentration camp movies we are invited to concentrate on a love story! Amazing resonant book and movie. But I want more.

    • Nell Minow

      I think the author would be very pleased to see what his work inspired in you. Thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I think the book (and movie) need to be seen in the context of the author’s other work, The Remains of the Day. Both are about unquestioning acceptance of one’s limited place in the world.

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