Tactile Memories of an Alternate Past in Never Let Me Go

Djoymi Baker, University of Melbourne |

Kazui Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is a science-fictional memoir of an alternate timeline, a temporal reimagining that has been a mainstay of science fiction (Singles 2013). Both the novel and Mark Romanek’s 2010 film version (either of which you should go off and experience now before reading any further) are set in the recent past, one that is both like and unlike our own. Undertaking a personal and therefore necessarily partial phenomenological reading of Romanek’s film, this paper examines how it engages with the pleasures of recognition in order to pull us into the perverse reimagining of our past.

The film begins by setting out its parameters as an alternate history, proclaiming that:

The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.

Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.

By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

We are then introduced to Kathy H., whose recollections take us back to her youth at the English boarding school of Hailsham in the 1970s. As an adolescent girl, Kathy sings the Hailsham school song along with her classmates, Tommy and Ruth. The tweedy school mistress Miss Emily looks over her charges, each of whom are dressed in versions of similar but mismatching grey woolen jumpers and cardigans.

At this stage of the film, this scene might resonate with our own memories of school along with our memories of other screen representations of English boarding schools. But as the film progresses, the seemingly banal tale of coming of age is revealed as masking the perversion of human cloning for organ harvesting. During this film, I found myself increasingly oscillating between the recognized visual textures and objects of my remembered past – such as the feel and smell of hand-knitted woolen jumpers from childhood – and their horrific narrative reimagining.

SettingBy setting the tale in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the film is able to evoke and jar with our personal memories and cultural perceptions of the era. Despite a long tradition within the science fiction genre for imagining different pasts as well as possible futures, the setting for Never Let Me Go was not always well received. In her review of the film, Margaret Pomeranz could not understand why the film “wasn’t set in some futuristic world where it would have had a greater believability” (2011).

That film had, in a sense, already been made in the form of The Island, directed by Michael Bay in 2005. In both films, clones are harvested for their organs. The Island, however, takes place in a near-future world of 2019, and the clones, who are created as adults, rebel against their fate, reflected in the film’s tagline: “plan your escape.” In Never Let Me Go, the clones are raised as children into acceptance of their role, and it their seeming inability to rebel against their fate that is, perhaps, one of the most shocking aspects of the tale. The emotionally restrained, even banal tone of Kathy H’s memoir underscores her inability to conceptualise escape beyond requesting some more time; a mere deferral.

Have the clones, John Marks suggests, even been genetically engineered to ensure such resignation? (2010, 348). Commenting on the novel, Martin Puchner writes,

This lack of outrage more than anything else makes one wonder whether [our narrator Kathy H.] is not somehow deficient, perhaps in a way one might expect from a manufactured creature. It is in this sense that Kathy H.’s voice can appear uncanny, a term that captures the disturbing mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar characteristic of nonhuman automata and doubles” (2008, 36).

And yet, we see humans, and the world itself, only through the eyes of clones. We are therefore positioned to take the subjectivity of the clones in Never Let Me Go as assumed at the outset. From this vantage point, ultimately it is the supposedly real humans who are rendered most inhuman. As Gabrielle Griffin suggests of the novel, humans are the barely glimpsed “ ‘unreal’ real that haunt the clones,” (2009, 652) and the film maintains this very restricted narration [1]. When Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have to converse with a real human waiter in a café, they are completely overwhelmed and appear almost terrified of the encounter. Although the clones have role-played this scenario at school, it patently fails to prepare them for the real encounter with the uncanny human.

Science fiction can take items that are not in themselves inherently strange, but through their recontextualisation within a science fiction diegesis can render them newly strange to our eyes (Spiegel 2008, 369, 375). Thus it is the human that is rendered strange in Never Let Me Go, rather than the clone. Further, by setting Never Let Me Go back in an alternate version of the past, the film provides us with a timeline that never was, with the iconographic markers of a time that did occur, and that we—depending on our age—have personally lived through. These markers jostle with generic markers of cinematic experiences with which we may not have first hand knowledge.

Laura Marks argues that visual and aural textures evoke the senses and embodied memories (2000, 129, 147, 183). Further, Marks suggests that the senses are not ‘natural,’ rather “sensuous knowledge is cultivated,” they are the manifestation of “culture within the body” (2000, 144, 145). Our filmic experience of a grey school jumper may or may not evoke cultured, sensory memories, but when it does, the object—or rather the sensory array of the object, including those seemingly beyond the audio-visual such as touch and smell—generates its own narrative (see Marks 2002, 123). This narrative arising out of an object clashes with the alternate timeline of Never Let Me Go that is both similar and different to our own, and it is both narrative recontextualisation and stylistic devices that make this juxtaposition felt, so that we experience the estrangement of our embodied memories. Thus a sense of estrangement is created when Romanek displays his acknowledged dept to post-war Japanese filmmakers such as Yasujirô Ozu (see Miller 2011, 38) by using lingering shots of still life. These shots stayed with me, haunted me, and came to stand in for the film in my memory, which in some ways is odd. One might think that the death of a clone at the hands of anonymous and supposedly more human doctors might linger more forcibly, which, for some viewers, I am sure it does. But for me, the seemingly random objects that Romanek pauses on stayed in my mind (even though he does not dwell on them nearly so long as Ozu). [2]

Late Spring“The camera’s unusual lingering” is one means by which Spiegel argues that an otherwise ordinary object can be “rendered strange” (2008, 375). Or rather, to be precise, what he calls “second-degree defamiliarization” within a film that has convinced its audience that its premise is plausible, that is, it has become naturalized (Spiegel 2008, 375). This unsettling effect increases as we progress through Never Let Me Go, and it is important to include the way that this defamiliarization plays with and relies upon embodied memories. The world of the Hailsham boarding school is itself is the familiar rendered gradually, increasingly strange. As the tone of the world presented to us starts to become off key, an ontological uncertainly starts to creep into our engagement with the objects within that world.

Objects frame the revelation to the audience and the students that they are clones destined to be harvested for their organs and allowed to die as a result at a young age. This is prefigured by a wilting flower in a vase that we see immediately before the revelation. After we (and they) know the truth, it is difficult to relate to their world in quite the same way. Once the students learn of their fate, Romanek cuts to a statue that appears to cry in the rain, despite its otherwise stoic, stony silence. The statue cries where the clones cannot, for while it embodies the clones’ mute acceptance, their youth prevents them from fully understanding what they have been told, or the potential life that has been withheld from them. In their institutionalized state, they do no know what to mourn. The statue, and the audience, must mourn on their behalf.

From the statue we cut to a less obvious but potentially more evocative image: a cricket ball left in damp grass. Marks suggests that postcolonial cinema takes a particular interest in the object, interrogating and reframing its commodification and exchange within colonial culture, but also drawing attention to the way that people can be exchanged as objects (2000, 78). While Marks is specifically focused on transnational documentary cinema (2000, 78), Bruce King sees in the novel of Never Let Me Go a postcolonial concern with “society’s treatment of Otherness” (2007, 105) [3] which I wish to map back onto the cinematic object via Marks. The wet cricket ball of the film can be smelt, felt, seen, remembered, evoking the painful pull of something lost and abandoned, a past that calls to our senses but can never fully be recaptured. It is with us, it is gone. It is embraced, it is abandoned. And perhaps most importantly, it is the same, it is different. After the reveal, I cannot look at these objects in the same way, there is a dissonance between my embodied memories and the object’s estrangement in a world that is not as it had first appeared. Marks suggests that the colonial object can accrue new meanings in new contexts, and as such the cinematic object can speak to “the unresolved traumas that become imbedded in them” (2000: 79-80). The cricket ball, that exemplar of Englishness exported to the colonized world, becomes estranged in its abandonment at a boarding school for clones.

Similarly, the objects that come to stand in for the clones’ memories of childhood at Hailsham are, at first glance, familiar. Ruth’s collection of pretty little girl possessions—a glass paperweight, a set of pastel coloured beds adorned with animals, a small horse figurine—are much like the assortment of figurines that can currently be found on my daughter’s bedside table. The close-up that allows us to contemplate these items belongs to an altogether different space. The now-adult clone Ruth has set them out on her hospital bedside table as she awaits organ harvesting, a nostalgic reminder of her youth. All the clones’ prized objects are actually made up of largely broken and discarded items donated to the school by humans, a perverse and inequitable form of exchange for the students’ later donations of their own organs. The cloned children of this world are also broken, disposable objects (King 2007, 105). For the adult Ruth, her collection of objects are one means by which to maintain personal memory and subjectivity in the face of her own commodification, even if, at one and the same time, they function as reminders to the audience of the system that has allowed her to accept that status.

Ruth’s objects create a link to her past, and the simultaneity of past, present and future can be felt throughout the film. Kathy recalls her memories in the verbal past tense of her narration but we witness those memories, her subjective account, in the audio-visual present. Woven into her recollections of the past are commentaries about her future, such as when she tells us: “It had never occurred to me that our lives, which had been so closely interwoven, could unravel with such speed.” The alternate timeline of Never Let Me Go invites the audience to undertake a similar temporal fluidity. I, too, was a child in the 1970s, and like Kathy H., I moved to rural England when I was 18, such that Kathy and Tommy’s walk through the woods is one that I smell and feel bodily, my eyes and memories distracted by the breeze through the leaves, a distraction encouraged by the wide framing of the pair in their woodland setting. Vivian Sobchack argues that the “only partially fulfilled sensual grasp of the original cinematic object is completed not in the realization of that object but through [one’s] own body” (2004, 77). My embodied memory of an English woodland is one that I experience through an anachronistic 18-year-old version of myself. Like Kathy, my embodied memories traverse a range of temporalities.

It is not through my own childhood that I encounter Ruth’s collection of childhood objects, but rather my daughter’s collection in the present. Similarly it is through my daughter’s current school song that I engage with the Hailsham song, as I came to realise the two share some identical musical sequences, such that I have trouble recalling one without accidentally segueing into the other (which is a rather disturbing after-effect). When the Hailsham school song is initially sung early in the film, the viewer does not yet understand the purpose of Hailsham boarding school nor the nature and status of its cloned students. We encounter the school songs with, perhaps, memories of our own school song, our children’s school song, or other fictional school songs we have heard in other films. D. Robert DeChaine suggests:

musical experience forces an encounter between mind and body, clearing a liminal space that is simultaneously charged with affect and fraught with tension… affect is… the circuit through which the past and the present, as well as imaginings of the future, become confluent (2002: 81, 86).[4]

The Hailsham song may evoke in us a range of personal and shared histories that we both (re)experience through embodied memories and transform through a new associative memory with the film. By the time I heard the song later in the closing credits, its effect upon me had completely changed, for it had been recontextualised and rendered uncanny in the manner of nursery rhymes sung by children in horror films. This progression in how I reacted to the song, from early in the film to its closing credits, summarises, then, my phenomenological movement through the film.

The framing of this world within an alternate past is signaled at the beginning of the film, but it is my engagement with the textures of its objects and sounds which produces an embodied unease of dissonance, a cinema of sensory moments that intersects with the narrative’s horrific and perverse banality.


[1] So contra David Stratton (2011), who suggests that the film is hampered by its lack of information about the world beyond the clones, the peripheral status of ‘real’ humans in fact functions to emphasize their frightening, not-quite-real attraction/repulsion for the clones.

[2] While Deleuze discusses Ozu’s lingering shot on the vase in Late Spring (1949) as exemplary of the time-image, of “time itself, ‘a little time in its pure state’,” of duration and endurance (Deleuze 1989, 16), what I want to focus on here is the potentially unsettling effect of the object.

[3] Or something that pushes the edges of postcolonialism, which he terms post-postcolonialism (King 2007, 105).

[4] I would like to thank Dr Diana Sandars for bringing this article to my attention.


DeChaine, D. Robert, 2002. ‘Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience.’ Text and Performance Quarterly 22, 2, 79-98.

Deleuze, Gilles, 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London: Continuum.

Griffin, Gabrielle, 2009. ‘Science and the cultural imaginary: the case of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.’ Textual Practice 23, 4: 645-663.

Ishiguro, Kazuo, 2005, 2010. Never Let Me Go, New York: Vintage Books,

King, Bruce, 2007, ‘Towards the Post-Postcolonial?’ Journal of Postcolonial Writing 43, 1: 100-105.

Marks, John, 2010, ‘Clone Stories: “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder”.’ Paragraph 33, 3: 331-353.

Marks, Laura, 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, Durham: Duke University Press.

Marks, Laura, 2002. Touch : sensuous theory and multisensory media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miller, Henry K., 2011. ‘Remaining Days.’ Sight and Sound, 21, 3: 36-38.

Pomeranz, Margaret and David Stratton, 2011. ‘Never Let Me Go.’ At the Movies, 30 March, http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s3163500.htm

Puchner, Martin, 2008. ‘When we were clones.’ Raritan: A Quarterly Review. 27,4: 34-49.

Singles, Kathleen, 2013. Alternate History: Playing with Contingency and Necessity, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Sobchack, Vivian, 2004. ‘What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh.’ In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, 53-84. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spiegel, Simon, 2008. ‘Things made strange: on the concept of “estrangement” in science fiction theory.’ Science Fiction Studies, Volume 35, 369-385.


Djoymi Baker teaches Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia—where her dissertation won the Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the Humanities—and Swinburne University of Technology. She is the co-author of The Encylopedia of Epic Films (Santas, Wilson, Colavito & Baker 2014), and her articles have appeared in journals such as Popular Culture Review, Senses of Cinema, and Refractory, and in such anthologies as Millennial Mythmaking: Essays on the power of Science and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games (2010) and Star Trek as Myth: Essays on Symbol and Archetype at the Final Frontier (2010). Dr Baker previously worked for many years in television news and current affairs.

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