Never Let Me Go is a luscious-looking oxymoron, a science-fiction nightmare that unfolds in the civilized, painterly manner of a Merchant Ivory stiff-upper-lip tearjerker. Adapted from the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), the movie (opening Sept. 15) isn't a period piece, although it often feels like one. It's set in England from the late '70s through the mid-'90s, and it's about three characters we meet as children who, in the initial boarding-school scenes, might be part of some dystopian Harry Potter triangle. Kathy, first played by Izzy Meikle-Small (a real find), has a crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe), who gets involved with Ruth (Ella Purnell), even though he secretly loves Kathy right back. Nothing too startling there, except that the junior soap opera takes on a shiver of dread when, fairly early on in the film (much earlier, in fact, than in the novel), Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), the children's third-year guardian, reveals their true nature. (Spoiler alert: If you don't want it revealed, then please read no further.)
Miss Lucy informs them that they're designated organ donors children, spawned as clones, who have been raised so that when they reach their early 20s, they must start to give up their vital organs for transplants, a system that has effectively eradicated all human disease. It means they're raised to be sacrificial lambs, that their lives are destined to be over before they've barely begun.
This is a horrific scenario, but the quiet poetry and, to me, the intense dramatic shortcoming of Never Let Me Go is that the characters all confront their fate with a kind of woebegone passivity. Once they've grown up, the roles are taken over by Carey Mulligan (sorrowfully beatific), Andrew Garfield (sorrowfully earnest), and Keira Knightley (sorrowfully peevish), and these three all act with a spooky, haunted innocence that gets under your skin. Yet Never Let Me Go is a singularly odd movie, because nothing really happens in it. No one protests, or tries to escape, or, in fact, does much of anything. The closest the film comes to a moment of lived-in urgency is the scene in which Kathy and Tommy chase down the rumor that their donor status will be ''deferred'' if they can prove they're in love. That scene touched my heart, yet too much of Never Let Me Go lowered my eyelids. It's a very tony fantasy of class oppression and fascist medical exploitation (themes that may speak louder in England), but it's a lyrically inert movie. C+