The limits of beauty or, more rightly, the uses of visual beauty are revealed in the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly regarded dystopian novel “Never Let Me Go.” Directed by Mark Romanek, this coming-of-age story involves three British friends who are raised with others of their kind in a group home that proves more Orwellian than Dickensian. In time, they timidly make their way into the world, which turns out to be crueler than most of us would, I suspect, like to believe. Though here cruelty is done so prettily and with such caution that the sting remains light, giving the entire enterprise the aspect of a tasteful shocker.
The unkindness emerges gradually, teased out through meaningful conversations and significant scenes that the screenwriter Alex Garland has scrupulously extruded from the novel. The story begins in the 1990s on a hushed note, with the narrator, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), who calls herself a “carer,” reminiscing about her childhood while watching a man, Tommy (Andrew Garfield), as he’s readied for an operation. Along with their friend Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy and Kathy grew up with hundreds of others in Hailsham, a boarding school tucked into a lonely pastoral pocket. There, watched over by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and the other adults, all called guardians, the children did what children do, playing, quarreling, forming friendships, while also receiving peculiar instruction about their ghastly future as organ donators.
Like the children, you initially have only a partial view of their lives, how they came to be at Hailsham and why, so that you learn with them. Much as Mr. Ishiguro does, Mr. Romanek reveals his secrets slowly and scatters his hints carefully, isolating crucial moments, like the children’s — and later the adults’ — indifferently passing their metal bracelets over a kind of device as if they were workers electronically punching the clock. The first time you see them do this, it raises a question that, like other Hailsham rituals and curiosities, remains unanswered. By the time the young adults swipe in, the casualness of their gestures, the nonchalance with which they wear these electronic leashes, will give you pause.