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Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture...

Perhaps a society truly becomes lost when it doesn't know how lost it is. This is the eerie suggestion put forward by the high-profile new film Never Let Me Go, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The alternative Britain that the story portrays isn't a typical rainy dystopia. Instead it's an apparently tranquil, progressive world where tedious paperwork and restrained euphemisms conceal the dark truth: that one group of people is being systematically sacrificed to meet the needs of the rest.

It's a world where the right questions are no longer asked. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) have an idyllic childhood. Growing up at Hailsham boarding school, their lives are barely marred even when they are told of a dark fate awaiting them in early adulthood. Far more real are the everyday concerns of friendship and the unspoken love triangle already forming between them. But as the years pass, their grim destiny looms ever closer. Will they try to escape it? Or will they learn to seize upon the short time that they have?

History demonstrates how easily evil can come to be called necessary, normal and even good

Keira Knightley tells of how a friend urged her to read the book, saying that it "defines our generation". The actress laughs this off as "a bleak thought". But is it so far from the truth? The children of the last few decades have grown up in a society that is losing its grip on absolutes. Audiences may be shocked by the moral norms accepted by the world of Never Let Me Go, but the film is a stark warning to check the moral blind spots of our own age. History demonstrates how easily evil can come to be called necessary, normal and even good.

Fighting back

Accustomed as we are to seeing heroes battle against cruel systems, it is almost incomprehensible to us that these characters don't fight back. Even Tommy, the most hopeful of the trio, doesn't get beyond the prospect of being granted a few more years. His question is never one of reprieve, only deferral. It simply never enters his mind that his fate is brutally unjust, because his highest authority is the society that has bred him. There is no voice assuring him that, despite what he might have been told, he is a precious individual with a soul.

To the viewer, nothing could be more obvious. The compelling performances of the three lead actors only serve to underscore what we feel by instinct anyway: that every human is unique and every life has value. For this reason, it is utterly devastating when Kathy and Tommy are confronted by what their society really thinks of them. "We didn't have to look into your souls," they are told. "We had to see if you had souls at all."

These words may well ring in the ears of audiences long after they leave the cinema. Many in our generation are so lost to rationalism and relativism that they may be unsure that they have souls at all. Like Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, we are in one sense nothing more than pieces of meat, allotted a short span of time on the earth before we die.

And yet so much in us speaks of more. We can't shake the hunch that there is right and wrong, that human beings do have intrinsic worth, that love is worth fighting for. Without hearing about the God of love in whose image they are made, our generation can make no sense of these facts.

The film takes its title from a song that Kathy listens to in her loneliest moments. As a child, we see her cradling her pillow as the lyrics speak of her deepest yearning: "Darling, hold me and never let me go." Despite her life's brevity, despite her isolation, despite everything she has been led to believe about the horrible purpose of her existence, her longing for transience is not quite snuffed out.

Like the generation she represents, she is aching for lasting love and for the affirmation of her humanity amidst all that would seek to deny it. This is the impression of the film's world that lingers - not how strange it is, but how hauntingly familiar.Sophie Lister

Never Let Me Go opens in UK cinemas on 11 February.

Sophie Lister writes for Culturewatch.org

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