Never Let Me Go

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Those who have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go” already know what a sad, poignant story it is, and they have been careful not to say too much about it as they recommend it to others. But the superb film adaptation isn’t as concerned about revealing the secrets too early. The real power in Ishiguro’s story is in its emotions, not its surprises.

Kathy, a reserved young woman played by Carey Mulligan, is our narrator and guide in this alternate version of reality. Here, advances in medical science have increased life expectancy to 100 years. (This is the very first thing the movie tells us.) Kathy talks about “carers” and “donors,” and flashes back to her years growing up at a boarding house called Hailsham, where a kindly teacher named Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) explained the facts of life to Kathy and her fellow students.

The details of those facts are revealed to us before long. Hailsham students are “special,” with a special destiny. They have little contact with the outside world. Miss Lucy tells them in no uncertain terms: “None of you will do anything but live the life that’s already set out for you.”

The rest of the story is about Kathy and her friends’ efforts to disprove that.

Kathy’s lifelong best friend is Ruth (Keira Knightley), a beautiful and insecure girl who does whatever it takes to get whatever she wants. When they were younger, that meant nabbing Tommy (Andrew Garfield) as a boyfriend, even though he was better suited for Kathy. Memories of the cottages where they and other students lived after Hailsham show Ruth desperate to fit in with the older kids, eager to be accepted.

Tommy is far less socially capable, a victim of teasing in his young years, exceedingly vulnerable. The system under which he, Kathy, and Ruth live has conditioned them all to accept whatever fate has in store for them, but Tommy is especially pliant. He seems to have no will of his own. It’s heartbreaking.

The film has been adapted by Alex Garland (“The Beach,” “Sunshine”) and directed by Mark Romanek, a well-respected music-video guru who made a small splash in the indie world with 2002’s “One Hour Photo.” Like almost all adaptations, this isn’t as good as the book it’s based on, but Garland and Romanek have done an outstanding job of translating a unique story into the language of film. “Never Let Me Go” has science-fiction elements, yet suspension of disbelief is never an obstacle. In fact, I felt more connection to, and sympathy for, these characters in their far-fetched situation than I’ve felt for a lot of “normal” fictional people lately.

That’s what great fiction does, of course. It makes its characters’ feelings seem universal, no matter how unusual their circumstances are. We don’t have the same specific burdens as Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, but we’ve all felt, at some point, like we were powerless to change our course in life. “Never Let Me Go” depicts this struggle with aching sensitivity.

B+ (1 hr., 43 min.; R, some sexuality, some nude photos.)