Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, is set in a modern day dystopia where scientific breakthroughs have extended the human lifespan beyond 100 through copious use of harvested organs. To meet the demand for human organs, clones are produced and raised apart from normal humans in specialized “schools”, such as Hailsham.

In order to exploit an entire class of people, you must first strip them of their humanity. This is accomplished at Hailsham not by beatings or threats, but by rumors, peer pressure, and euphemism. The children are taught only the most basic of life skills and drilled in the importance of keeping themselves healthy. They are taught to fear the outside world, and never to form relationships with normal humans or let on that their lives have been anything other than ordinary. A lady identified only as Madame periodically visits the school to collect the children’s best artwork, though she seems loath to touch or talk to them. Social development deliberately stunted, the clones consequently find small displays of individuality intimating, and even as adults struggle with minor decisions like choosing what to order for breakfast at a diner.

The story centers on three of the cloned children; Kathy, creative and unassuming; Tommy, uncoordinated and prone to sudden fits of rage; and Ruth, the “mean girl” of the group. Kathy and Tommy share a quiet understanding, but Ruth, afraid of being alone, interferes in their budding relationship and claims Tommy for herself.

For a brief time they have a new teacher who tells them the truth, that they will not have normal lives or lifespan, but that they are expected to donate their organs until completion (death). Miss Lucy is quickly fired for this transgression, and Miss Emily the headmistress gives a defiant speech to which the children wildly applaud their treatment, not understanding that they are applauding their own destruction.

When the children turn 18 they are transferred to group homes called “The Cottages” and given enough freedom to choose to either begin their donations or work as carers to support those in the process of “completion”. One older couple asks Ruth and Tommy whether the rumors of a three-year deferral for couples “truly in love” are true, setting off wild speculation that they may be able to extend their lives a bit. Ruth comes to the conclusion that she and Tommy would not be able to prove their love, and confesses to Kathy that she stole Tommy away from her. She gives Kathy the address to see Madame, and with that she’s ready to complete.

What Kathy and Tommy really need is a good civil rights lawyer and media attention, but none of the clones are savvy in ways of the world. Instead they speculate that they need to produce artwork for Madame to judge, to enable her to see into their souls and verify their love for one another. Tommy, already weakened by two donations, feverishly produces drawings of elephants and frogs.

Kathy signs Tommy out on a day pass, and they slip away to visit Madame and find her in the garden. She doesn’t want to talk to them about deferment alone, and brings them inside to consult with Miss Emily, who lives with her and now uses a wheelchair. (Perhaps she is a potential recipient of donated organs and has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the system?)

Never Let Me Go

Miss Emily and Madame tell Kathy and Tommy that they have been judged to have no soul, no right to self-determination, and their bodies are property of the state.

Miss Emily explains to the couple that “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. We used your art to show what you were capable of. To show that donor children are all but human. But we were providing an answer to a question no one was asking. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor neuron disease, they’ll simply say no.”

Conditioned to accept this fate, Kathy and Tommy return to the donation center, stopping briefly for Tommy to rage against the dying of the light. Kathy comforts him as best she can, but Tommy completes immediately upon his next donation. With nothing left to live for, Kathy schedules herself to begin the process of donation as well.


Ondine starts out with a fisherman (with the oddly un-Irish name of Syracuse) who plies his trade with a small boat off the coast of Ireland. Him and his fishing boat are necessary elements to the story, because the tale starts when he pulls up a beautiful young woman wearing a bedraggled gray dress in his net. Initially thinking that she’s dead, he at first thinks of reporting his unusual catch to the authorities, but she turns out to be alive but unconscious, and she quickly revives after he gives her CPR. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want contact with anyone else, and being a fisherman in a remote area, who is lucky enough to have inherited a house from his mother near his fishing grounds, he is initially able to accommodate her wish to hide from the world.

He tells only one person about this unusual occurrence: his young daughter, who suffers from kidney failure and uses a wheelchair, had no book to pass the time during a dialysis appointment; to entertain her he tells her about the strange woman he fished from the sea, claiming that this story is a self-created fairy tale. Having just learned about the Scottish folkloric creature, the Selkie, she comes to the conclusion that this woman has to be a Selkie.

When she meets the woman and finds out that she is more than a fairytale, she starts reading up on Selkies and asking the woman questions. The woman gives her name as “Ondine” (implying that she is indeed a water spirit of some sort), and eventually acknowledges some Selkie characteristics and behavior as the movie goes on. Though the woman initially denies it, the girl and later others in the small town start seeing evidence to support the theory that she is a Selkie.

Most convincingly, when Ondine goes out on the fishing boat with Syracuse and sings, his lobster pots and trawling nets become strangely full. Her attempt to conceal something is taken to be an attempt at “burying her seal coat”, and the appearance of a strange and hostile man who wants to force her to go away with him though she wants to stay with Syracuse and is fast establishing a relationship with him is credited to the folklore concerning “the Selkie husband”. The viewer is left to wonder if she is indeed a Selkie or something similar.

While this movie does use the traditional imagery of the cute little disabled kid in the cute little wheelchair heroically enduring repeated dialysis treatments and patiently waiting for a donor kidney, and indulges in the further unreality of making the girl able to walk for some distance when her new motorized wheelchair becomes temporarily disabled after some able-bodied kids ride it into a big puddle, it is more realistic about physical disabilities and the lives of kids who have them than most other pictures involving a disabled juvenile character. This is perhaps because it is not, strictly speaking, a film about a disabled kid, but rather, a film containing a kid who happens to have some unnamed condition that involves kidney failure and the use of a wheelchair in wheelchair-unfriendly small-town Ireland. The first scene depicting the girl in a manual wheelchair shows us that her father routinely rides her straight over high curbs and cobblestones, and carries her into the car, up stairs, etc. Neither wheelchair ramps nor elevators are anywhere in evidence, those in the know are well aware that she can’t be carried like that forever. The girl somehow goes to school and to the local library, apparently others (her mother and stepfather) carry and chauffeur her as well. Nobody seems to have a van with a wheelchair lift; when Anna gets her power chair, she has to drive herself alongside her father’s car to get home. Though she has a normal pre-teen’s preoccupations, such as watching rock groups on TV and curiosity about the budding relationship between Ondine and her father, her life comes with some unusual risks built in: her stepfather looms as a menacing presence whose conduct and contact with her looks suspiciously on the verge of improper and abusive; her biological father got sober only because he realized someone had to be in order to properly fulfill parental responsibilities to her; his fall off the wagon threatens Anna as well as himself.

Ironically, it was an evening at the pub for her mother and stepfather in which both get inebriated and her mother rode in Anna’s power wheelchair which leads to the death of Anna’s stepfather in an unexpected car crash. He turns out to have a donor card and to be a perfect match for a kidney for the girl. This good luck-bad luck situation is attributed to the wish-granting power of the Selkie after the girl had asked the woman to make her better. Unlike in a lot of movies with a disabled character, the wish articulated by the little disabled girl, “make me better”, did not mean “remove the need for a wheelchair” but rather the life-threatening crisis of the kidney failure.

The true identity of “Ondine” remains a mystery until near the end of the movie when a less supernatural theory of how she came to be where and what she is comes to be revealed. We come to realize that Anna has created a bit of a fantasy for herself in order to cope with the tremendous stresses of her illness instead.