One of the wonderful things about Never Let Me Go (and there are many) is the fact that it doesn't try to slot itself into one genre. You could say that it's science fiction, although it has none of the usual trappings of dystopian sci-fi. Or maybe it's just a romantic drama with a twist.
The narrative centres on three friends: Kathy (played by Meikle-Small as a child, then by Mulligan), Ruth (Parnell, then Knightley) and Tommy (Rowe, then Garfield) are pupils at Hailsham, an exclusive school set in gorgeous grounds. It's just like any other boarding school, except for the fact that these children absolutely must stay healthy – and will never lead normal lives. By all accounts, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel reveals its story very gradually, and the film mercifully does this too, allowing the narrative to unfurl without ever feeling the need to dump its back story into a montage – which is why we're not explaining it too much here.
It's not speculative fiction, exactly, given it's set in the immediate past. Nor can you really call it dystopian sci-fi. Dystopian stories are concerned with deprivation, oppression and the deterioration of life and society. The decision of whether society is "good" or "bad" is made for you. In Never Let Me Go, you're left to decide this for yourself – without ever knowing exactly why things are the way they are. Every other film in a vaguely similar vein has been concerned with escaping and breaking the system. Nobody wants to break the rules in Never Let Me Go, and it's never clear whether or not they even can be broken.
There are big questions at the heart of this story. Fiction and film have long been concerned with just what makes us human, the inevitability of death, our desire to cheat our fates, our obsession with eternal life, and issues of free will and doing what is "right" – and who gets to decide just what that is. Which would be a lot to cram into a philosophy course, never mind a film. But Never Let Me Go manages to ask all of these questions and more besides, without moralising or ramming anything down your throat.
For all the existential issues it raises, this is a strange, sad, bittersweet story of jealousy and unrequited love, and of finding and losing happiness. While the sci-fi (or whatever you want to call it) element provides structure, the story at the heart of Never Let Me Go is a timeless one, told without a line or a cast member out of place. The actors who play Kathy, Tommy and Ruth as children are brilliant – finally, child actors who won't make you cringe! – and so is everyone else. Quite simply, it's one of the best films you are likely to see all year.