Here’s an interestingly subdued take on the sci-fi genre, adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name. The setting is the recent past; Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightly play three friends who grow up together at the secluded Hailsham boarding school – a breeding ground, we soon discover, for organ-donor clones, who will only live to their mid-twenties in order to keep the rest of the world healthy.
These unnerving circumstances are, however, merely background to the simple love-triangle that is at the film’s heart. Whilst the odd detail – the LED bleep of an electronic chip reader – tells us this isn’t life as we know it, director Mark Romanek is more interested in the bleak faces of his actors and lingering shots of mundane hospital exteriors or grey, deserted beaches.
It’s a gentle, ordinary world in which sci-fi won’t often be found, but – as with Ishiguro’s writing – there’s much that bubbles just under the surface. Romanek demonstrates the economy with which cinema can communicate ideas and conjure worlds: we briefly see, for instance, the pitiless way in which doctors handle Garfield’s body on the operating table as his general anaesthetic kicks in, hinting at the full, brutal horror that remains, for the most part, beyond the screen.
Presumably taken straight from Ishiguro’s novel, the deceptive banality of phrases such as ‘donation’, ‘deferral’ and – most unnervingly – ‘completion’ cause us to consider how language can conceal, bringing to my mind the dark satire of Monkey Dust’s marketing gurus rebranding cancer as ‘closure’. And there are fissures in this sheen of euphemism and complacency – in the middle of nothing, we’ll suddenly hear chilling mention of schools ‘like battery farms’.
If it feels slightly frustrating that the film doesn’t want to pursue these elements any further, perhaps that’s the point. Everything is very restrained and accepting, very polite, very English. The acting, by Garfield and Mulligan especially, is intelligent and heartfelt, but what’s most disquieting is that none of these characters summon any real resistance to their fate. Somehow the morality of the film’s donor-clone premise is brought into focus precisely by not being challenged in the plot itself: are these individuals really happy to sacrifice themselves for others? Have they been brainwashed by society? Or perhaps denied to the opportunity to develop a life-drive that would make them truly human?