Due to its subject matter, this film should be called sci-fi. But its tone is far closer to a somber period piece. Mark Romanek, whose only other feature film was the sad thriller ONE HOUR PHOTO, has kept the same straightforward tone of the book from Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novel REMAINS OF THE DAY was adapted into a somber film as well. Romanek never sensationalizes the material into some kind of conspiracy thriller. He asks one philosophical question and spends the film answering that question in an emotionally powerful way.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION), Tommy (Andrew Garfield, RED RIDING TRILOGY) and Ruth (Keira Knightley, PRIDE & PREJUDICE) have grown up together at the highly controlled boarding school Hailsham. The headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling, SWIMMING POOL) does not stand for anyone breaking the rules. The children were told stories that if they left the grounds even for a second they might be savagely murdered. They wear wristbands to make sure they are all accounted for. The new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY) begins to question the morality of how the children are being treated, but her views are seen as subversion.
The children are clones. They have been born simply to provide organs to needy people. There are several boarding schools where the children are raised. Once they turn 18, they move to halfway type homes where they await their first donation. After a few donations, they "complete." Some don't survive one donation; some last three or four. There's a terrible rumor that some don't really "complete" after a third or fourth donation, but simply slip into a comma.
There are a lot of rumors that float around in the clone communities. They have little connection with outside world and those they do communicate with keep them in the dark. There is talk that if two clones fall in love they can get a deferral, allowing them to push off their donations. The clones desperately look around to see if they can ever find their "original" out in the real world. Clone carers are hired to comfort donors through their operations. It's a morbid job, but it allows the carer to put off their first donation.
Kathy becomes a carer. She's perfect for it. Ever since she was a girl, she has been a kind thoughtful person. She took the awkward Tommy under her wing to make him feel less of an outsider and help control his anger issues. Her lifelong friend Ruth has a chip on her shoulder and at first wonders why Kathy wants to be around such a freak. But as these things go, Ruth ends up stealing Tommy for herself.
Mulligan gives Kathy a quiet intelligence. She is the kind of person that sits back and observes the world and in her quiet way tries to help others. Knightley's Ruth comes off full of confidence, but she's really an empty fearful shell, taking on friends and attitudes in order to shield herself from reality. While Oscar nominees Mulligan and Knightley are wonderful, the real standout is Garfield. He makes Tommy innocent and honest. There isn't a fake bone in his body. He has a quiet soul.
Ay, there's the rub, for what soul does a clone have? It's the eternal question that surrounds clones, but who asks these questions is key to this film. For these clones, life is like having a slow terminal disease with no cure. It doesn't get painful until the end, but when they are feeling fine they know it's coming. They hold onto hopes that a bargain can be made. But their life just leads through the other stages of grief. They take their existence as a matter of fact, knowing more acutely than most "originals" that life is short. What's the point of asking if their life is fair, who ever said is was.