Death and Human Dilemmas: Creating Sympathy for the Characters in Romanek’s ‘Never Let Me Go’

Mark Romanek explores the difficult choices that people make when faced with death in his film Never Let Me Go (2010). He explores the raw human emotions of jealousy and forgiveness through the characterisation of Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan). When faced with death, it is common to act out towards the people you care about, with this concept developed through the character of Ruth. However, people also want to forgive and be forgiven. These conflicting choices and subsequent actions that the characters’ face is crucial to the film. The dystopic storyline of cloning humans for their organs is so far removed from the audience’s own experiences, that they feel apathy for the characters. To counter this, the director successfully humanises Kathy and Ruth by placing them in situations that many people have also experienced, allowing the viewers to connect with the film emotionally. In doing so, Romanek positions them to question the ethics behind organ farming, as the characters express very human qualities rather than acting as faceless objects.

Romanek explores the human emotion of jealousy, particularly in the face of death, and how it is difficult to reverse the consequences. This emotion is illustrated by the character of Ruth, reflecting on and how she behaves towards Tommy and Kathy, as she was never wanted to be left alone. Ruth’s insecure and vulnerable qualities are present from the beginning of the film at Hailsham, which defines her actions. The director first introduces the character of Tommy at a time when he is teased by characters in his year level, including Ruth. Kathy is the only person in her year to approach and later befriend Tommy. However, as soon as Ruth sees that Kathy and Tommy are happy together, her jealous state causes her to cast her friendship with Kathy aside. Romanek foreshadows these actions in a scene at Hailsham, where Ruth and Kathy are gossiping in bed about the blooming relationships within their year-group. The scene opens with an over-the-shoulder shot from the perspective of Kathy, with Ruth’s dialogue showing her interest in the love lives of their peers. Ruth’s change in body language and dialogue about how “Tommy’s changed” indicates her new opinion after seeing Kathy’s interest in him.

Furthermore, having a dimmer light on Ruth rather than Kathy depicts her naïve behaviour and how Ruth will manipulate her friend to get what she wants. Ruth makes the conscious choice to disregard Kathy’s feelings towards Tommy so she can avoid her biggest fear of being alone. As the film progresses, so too does Ruth’s vulnerability and her jealousy towards her peers. Her jealousy reaches its climax while at ‘The Cottages’, which exemplifies their fate of being organ donors. Here, Ruth tries to regain control over the only possible aspect of her life, which is her relationships with others. Romanek highlights this idea in the scene where Kathy is listening to music, and Ruth interrupts with hurtful remarks. The backlighting on Ruth as she enters the room, paired with the eerie non-diegetic music and low-angle full shot, makes her appear sinister and powerful, which puts the audience on edge and unsure of the situation. Ruth’s spiteful but personal dialogue and open body language while belittling Kathy demonstrates her vulnerability momentarily, stating ‘Tommy and Kathy would be a more natural couple’. Romanek chooses to explore this concept to humanise the cold and disconnected character of Ruth, as she expresses the human quality of jealousy. Ruth’s choice of taking out her frustration about her personal problems towards Kathy is a painful one, which potentially jeopardises their friendship. These two scenes position the audience to question whether jealousy has caused difficult and unfortunate actions towards those they love.

The director also explores how humans seek forgiveness and forgive others when death is nearby. The tense relationship between Ruth and Kathy exemplifies the importance of seeking forgiveness and forgiving others, however difficult it may be. When Kathy and Ruth meet after their times at ‘The Cottages’, Ruth has rapidly deteriorated and is close to ‘completion’. She convinces Kathy to take her and Tommy on a trip to the beach, where she confesses her wrongdoings and to make things right. The setting of the scene is on an empty beach, typically an area free from bias. Furthermore, the closed body language of Ruth, along with a mid-shot camera angle of her alone herself demonstrates her vulnerability before trying to make amends. When Ruth is telling Tommy and Kathy about the deferrals, they are shot together using a close-up reverse angle highlights the range of emotions expressed on their faces. By humanising the characters, the audience is positioned to not only reflect on their individual grudges but to question their mortality, by looking at the ‘quality vs quantity of life’ altercation.

When Kathy returns to Ruth’s room, she accepts her apology and tells her that she is applying for the deferral. It is unclear whether Kathy has genuinely forgiven Ruth or if she is only doing so because she is close to ‘completion’. Romanek uses this difficult dilemma to position the audience to re-evaluate whether they should have forgiven others in the face of death and whether they did for the right reasons. The monochromatic colour scheme, the absence of non-diegetic sound and long pauses between Kathy and Ruth’s dialogue is used to create a sombre mood to reflect the bittersweet topic at hand. After this scene, a close-up shot shows Ruth on an operating table with the only diegetic sound being a heart monitor flat-lining. Romanek illustrates how people do not ‘complete’ until they have finally forgiven themselves.

Romanek illustrates how individuals who face death have difficult choices to make, and how that has a significant impact on others. He humanises the characters by exploring the emotions of jealousy and forgiveness, causing the viewers to create emotional attachments. By removing the “us vs. them” mentality, it questions the ethics behind involuntary organ donations. The director uses various film techniques to emphasise that no matter the circumstances, we are all human in the end and therefore are worthy of fundamental human rights. The director openly encourages the audience of ‘Never Let Me Go’ to question the ethics of cloning humans, as the characters are continuously viewed as real people rather than merely replacement organs.