A film review by Craig J. Koban June 12, 2016

ME BEFORE YOU jj
½ 

2016, PG-13, 110 mins.

 

Emilia Clarke as Louisa "Lou" Clark  /  Sam Claflin as William "Will" Traynor  /  Janet McTeer as Camilla Traynor  /  Charles Dance as Steven Traynor  /  Vanessa Kirby as Alicia

Directed by Thea Sharrock  /  Written by Jojo Moyes, based on her novel

Romance dramas don’t need to do a whole hell of a lot to win me over.  

Classic “Three Hankie Tearjerkers” are relentlessly predictable to their cores and methodically engage in wanton emotional manipulation to ensure that geysers of tears are shed from our collective eyeballs.  Yet, what helps override this genre’s staunch allegiance to overused formulas and conventional beats is the inherent strength of its two lead stars.  If films like these populate themselves with bountifully charismatic and likeable characters that we like and yearn for their pre-end credit courtship and happiness, then that’s half the battle right there.  

ME BEFORE YOU – based on the 2012 UK novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes, whom also penned the film’s screenplay – is one of those dime-a-dozen romance films that superficially appears to be shamelessly scheming to elicit our waterworks emotional response, and certainly achieves that status quo.  It tells a story of two polar opposite characters from divergent economic backgrounds that somehow fall head over heels for one another with a stark unavoidability that hardly requires a fortuneteller to foresee.  The film also contains two limitlessly appealing performances by its headlining stars, so inviting and charming that they pretty much help us forgive the obligatory machinations of the story they inhabit.  I was legitimately won over by ME BEFORE YOU, but the film then delves into one excruciatingly thorny subplot with far ranging ethical quandaries that, quite frankly, is so clumsily and insensitively dealt with that it angered and frustrated me to the point where I felt that it all but capsized the story as a whole. 

The film introduces us to Louisa (GAME OF THRONES Emilia Clarke, refreshingly a million miles removed from the character she plays on that show), a small-town girl that works at a lowly job at a neighborhood bakery to help support her economically suffering family.  She’s so bloody good at serving customers, with her cheery and warm disposition and an endlessly endearing thousand watt smile, but her world is thrown for a loop when he boss is forced to lay her off, leaving her depressed, rejected, and without much hope in sight.  She becomes desperate for a job – any job – that simply requires someone with a pulse, and she manages to find one via an employment recruitment center.  It appears that a local wealthy family requires a caregiver for their son that was recently paralyzed from the neck down.  Despite no medical/nursing expertise, Louisa gathers up the nerve to apply, and even though her interview with the young man’s mother (Janet McTeer) is a rocky one, she’s hired on the spot because of her jovial personality and confidence to try…anything. 

 

 

The young man in question is Will (THE HUNGER GAMES’ Sam Claflin), and it’s immediately and abundantly clear to Louisa very early on that he will indeed be a handful.  Will was once a very promising businessman and voracious extreme sports athlete that seemingly had it all before his accident, but his paralysis has left him toxically anti-social and bitter.  Louisa tries as she can to find some manner of breaking through his very tough emotional defenses, but being a quadriplegic has fundamentally changed Will in ways beyond the mere physical.  He seems to take great pleasure in being a rather large and unsavory thorn in Louisa’s side...that is until they begin to find small ways of bonding on common interests, like French cinema.  An impromptu home screening of OF GODS AND MEN helps ease much of the tension between the pair (he’s amazed that she’s never seen a subtitled film before) and from this point their daily conversations grow and evolve.  

Hmmmm…. I wonder if romantic sparks will eventually strike between the pair? 

Sarcasm aside, ME BEFORE YOU is a small-scale triumph of casting, as Clarke and Claflin display some truly matchless and alluring chemistry in the film, which, again, helps one overlooks the film’s beyond-obvious genre clichés.  If you turn a blind eye to her egregiously wrongheaded casting as Sarah Connor in last year’s TERMINATOR reboot, prequel, sequel thingy, Clarke displays in ME BEFORE YOU why she’s a bona fide movie star in the making.  Even though she decks herself out in multiple outfits so garish that they deserve Will’s incessant mockery, underneath that resides a woman of gawky adorability, boundless enthusiasm and captivating sincerity.  That, and she has a beyond radiant and ethereal glow that was born for close-ups.  Claflin arguably has the trickier role of the pair, seeing as he has to convey multiple conflicting emotional states primarily through facial expressions.  He has to segue from being a disagreeable lout to a genuinely dashing and agreeable figure worthy of Louisa’s love.  Their relationship simmers with such natural veracity that it makes ME BEFORE YOU feel more organically moving and touching as a direct result. 

There is, as mentioned, a rather large and problematic elephant in the room when it comes to Will, which is forcing me into heavy S-P-O-I-L-E-R territory in order to discuss my grievances with it.  Louisa discovers that Will…wishes to kill himself, but legally through doctor assisted suicide via a special clinic in Switzerland.  He has given his family six more months, after which time he will end it all.  Fully realizing that Will is making a rather large mistake with his life, Louisa takes it upon herself to show him a six months of a lifetime, accompanying him to fancy concerts and balls and even journeying with him to far away beach side resort destinations.  And just when it appears that their courtship has reached a point of turning Will around for the better…he still decides that it’s in everyone’s best interests that he ends his life.  And he does just that, cuing viewers to reach into their pockets for multiple Kleenexes when he finally has to say his inevitable goodbyes to all. 

Will, when it boils right down it, is a selfish coward.  

Hear me out.  

He’s insanely good looking, a man of unlimited wealth and privilege, and literally has everything he needs to continue to live his life (albeit an extremely difficult one considering his condition).  Yet, we're left with the startling finality of his decision, that he has absolutely nothing of value to live for whatsoever, and thusly must kill himself to be removed from his family's and friend's’ burdensome responsibilities in caring for him.  He also leaves Louisa a healthy inheritance, allowing her the freedom to do what she wants to with her life.  ME BEFORE YOU desperately wants us to think that Will is a selfless and caring soul that looks after Louisa well beyond the grave, but it so utterly fails to tackle the core questions that his actions raise.  Instead, the film opts to let an incredibly polarizing moral issue be shamelessly used for the purposes of eliciting cheap emotional payoffs near the film’s climax.  The message that this film sends is just…wrong.  What’s it really trying to say?  That people with disabilities – regardless of the severity of their condition – have no other recourse but to end it all?  Are they all truly better off dead?  Are they such constrictive burdens on their families that death is a form of merciful action relieving them of such anxieties? 

As I left the screening of ME BEFORE YOU I saw a long line forming for the next showing, with some of the patrons being wheelchair bound victims of paralysis that appeared in infinitely far worse condition than Will.  These brave souls have decided to live their lives with headstrong dignity that I'll never possess nor understand.  Yet, I felt pity for these people awaiting to screen it, not explicitly because of their debilitating state, but more because they were about to see a film that they think will speak positively towards them, but instead depressingly advocates a message that their existence is one without any tangible hope or a meaningful future.  That, again, is wrong.  So very, very wrong.  ME BEFORE YOU has other issues, to be sure (like Louisa's boyfriend, a perfunctory and throwaway side character that exists to be such an unsympathetic and self-serving jerk that conveniently makes it easy for her to dump to be with Will) and a pop soundtrack that peppers the story containing lyrics that go out of their way to state the emotional state of any given scene.  I can forgive such annoying trivialities.   ME BEFORE YOU is a film that was working wonders on me as far as the strengths of its two lead actors, but its attempts at addressing the morality of assisted suicide and the worth of disabled people is ultimately shallow and condescending.  

Consider this: the tagline for ME BEFORE YOU is “Live Boldly.”  That's almost a cruel joke in itself.  Ultimately, that notion becomes so paradoxical and demeaning, especially if you ponder Will’s ultimate life choice.  Films like this with so many commendable elements shouldn't leave such a truly bad taste in my mouth when I leave the cinema.  

 

 

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