Kathy, Ruth and Tom are friends at Hailsham, a very old-fashioned English boarding school. The headmistress (Miss Emily) tells her charges that they are "different from any other children," their lessons seem to involve only art and poetry, and they're kept from straying beyond bounds by terrible rumours about what happened to those who tried.
Clearly they're being hot-housed for some dark purpose, and we, and they, gradually find out. They are clones, created in a laboratory for the purpose of providing healthy organs for non-clone patients; they will have no life except as "donors" or "carers" and will die (or "complete" their "donations") in their 20s. A strength of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel was that it only gradually unfolded its terrible secret through Kathy's puzzled perspective. In the film, scripted by Alex Garland, their fate is revealed early, and the film is thereafter doomed to sound a single chord of tearful yearning (and one enormous yell). Instead of ambiguity, it gives us texture. The Hailsham scenes are wonderfully production-designed and photographed: the lawns, ponds, dormitory, ancient wooden floors and images of dried-up roses evoke a lost England, in contrast to the new England of organ-harvesting. The last act, when the friends reunite, and two of them try to fight the inevitable, should be unbearably moving, but somehow misses the mark. The sight of Carey Mulligan constantly welling up tears, Keira Knightley being brave on a Zimmer frame and Andrew Garfield, minus one lung, pleading for a "deferral" from death left me dry-eyed. It's beautiful to look at, but as glum and dead as a flounder on a fishmonger's slab.