Never Let Me Go, which screened this week at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in theaters on Friday, is a hard movie to embrace, much like the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro on which it is based.
I'm not sure how much of what follows are spoilers, but consider this a spoiler alert because I talk about the plot pretty plainly.
Told in ineffably understated British style -- so dryly that tone is more a notion than a fact -- you could easily think of it as a story told by laboratory animals, who are aware of their fate as experimental subjects and are resigned to it. Indeed, not just resigned -- they're even a little proud of their sacrificial status, if it's for the betterment of science and mankind.
Set in an alternate England, in a past/future where human cloning has been perfected, the story focuses on a trio of young people -- first as tweens, then as young adults -- who share a history of living in the boarding school known as Hailsham. They are being raised to be donors -- as a source of spare organs for other people -- with no real future of their own.
But this trio -- Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) -- are special because, well, they're not really, except that the story is about them. They come together and break apart as teens, then reunite as adults, each on his path to "completion."
Which, of course, means death, usually from surrendering too many of their pieces to go on living. They gradually are depleted -- of organs, of life -- until they're completed. And not in a Jerry Maguire "You complete me" kind of way.
But the story, such as it is, is barely a story at all - mostly having to do with the struggle between the two girls for the affection of Tommy. You might expect at least a nod toward the idea that these clones would rebel against their fate - hey, clones are human, too. But these characters are so bloodless that you don't care who gets who or even whether they live or die. Let them be brain donors, for all I care.
Nor does the film work on a suspense level, because director Mark Romanek creates a quiet, leisurely pace that would not be out of place in a yoga class. The big emotional moment at the end of the film -- the reveal, if you will -- is so unrevealing, so uninvolving, that you're bowled over mostly by the anticlimax of it.
Romanek no doubt was aiming for an eerie, Children of the Damned vibe, except that it's the children who are damned. He lets the film tickle the brain, in terms of questions it raises regarding cloning, stem-cell research, human experimentation and the like. Yet the issues themselves barely surface.
What you end up with is a staid, lifeless tale that never talks about what it's about, or at least not enough to provoke deep thoughts on the subject. Deep sleep is more like it.