Film Review – Me Before You
Me Before You
The sappiness runs deep with Me Before You (2016). In the pantheon of schmaltzy romances, this one fits the requirements completely. It panders to the common tropes: The Lonely Outcast Protagonist? Check. The Romantic Interest With A Tough Shell But A Heart Of Gold? Double check. An Obstacle That Both Characters Overcome To Fall In Love (Preferably Medical)? Triple check. Montages? Quadruple check. By the time the plot entered the second half, I started mentally predicting what would unfold. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t too far off. People that go into this will already have an affinity for it, others will steer away.
It’s strange in movies about partnerships where one has a disability that a production would choose the healthy person as the POV character and give them the central emotional arc. In Rain Man (1988), Tom Cruise’s Charlie learns to be a better brother to Dustin Hoffman’s autistic Ray. Are we supposed to think, “It’s a good thing this able person met someone with a crippling disability and through their interaction learned to live life to the fullest?” There’s something strangely…wrong about that. Of course, it all depends on execution. I’m sure there are instances where this premise has been done with a sensitivity that makes it work, but it’s a slippery slope.
I’m not so sure it works this time. Lou (Emilia Clarke) is a twenty-something trying to figure her life out. Often times her work involves pleasing other people. She sticks with her boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) even though neither of them have much in common, and takes any job she can to help support her family. But through everything, Lou maintains a brightly optimistic persona. I wonder how much Emilia Clarke’s face hurt from having to smile so much. There is barely a moment where Lou isn’t flashing those pearly whites and seeing everything with a silver lining. Her attitude is reflected in her clothing, made up of furry sweaters, colorful scarves, and a pair of black and yellow leggings she treasures like gold.
Through an employment agency, Lou gets hired as an assistant caregiver and thus meets Will (Sam Claflin), a recently paralyzed man. Will was once a hotshot businessman, but a sudden traffic accident has left him in a wheelchair, needing near 24 hour surveillance. The accident has left Will in a troubling place. Having his entire world flipped upside down and now trapped in his own body, Will descends into a depression his parents fear he will not come out of. Luckily, they’ve hired the most positive thinking caregiver in England.
You kind of see where this is all going, right? Thea Sharrock directs Jojo Moyes’ screenplay (adapted from Moyes’ novel) with little to no surprises. We know that Lou and Will will develop romantic feelings for each other. Will’s paralysis will stand as a metaphor for Lou’s situation, causing her to see all the exciting things life has to offer. Good for her, right? There’s a repeating butterfly motif to amplify this theme in case we forget. The plot shoots directly at the heartstrings without shame, catering to base level emotion regarding love, relationships, depression, and even death.
There is no subtlety about what is happening. Characters speak directly and exactly about how they’re feeling. Dramatic scenes are pushed to get the most reaction out of the audience, stocked with that familiar piano music to help get the point across. The direction and camerawork has a stale and unremarkable style, except for one particular scene. During a heated conversation between Will and Lou along a beach, Will gets left in a state of agitation sitting on the sand. In the very next shot, the editing cuts to the same location the next morning, Will nowhere to be found. There were a few giggles at this amongst the screening audience, the implication being that Will was so distraught that he took his wheelchair and rolled into the ocean to kill himself.
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin do share chemistry together. They look good as a couple onscreen, and some of the relationship building have a natural, relaxed groove. I liked seeing them simply talking, passing quips and having a laugh, that’s when they were at their best. It’s only when they’re required to play to the limitations of their characters that the spell breaks. Emotionally charged scenes felt over the top, lacking authenticity and delving into the icky manipulation that plagues the genre.
I don’t mind a movie wanting to get a specific reaction out of me, but it has to earn it through creativity, skill, and intelligence. Me Before You takes the cheap and easy way out, doing anything it can to generate sympathy. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about its themes or characters – they all exist within a generic and simplified love story. It’s a painting done by numbers and nothing more.