ME BEFORE YOU
Director: Thea Sharrock
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Stephen Peacocke, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Lloyd-Hughes
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and some suggestive material)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 6/3/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 2, 2016
There's a distasteful brand of insincerity that pervades Me Before You. The movie seems like a typical romance between two mismatched partners, who spend most of the story figuring out what they knew deep down all along—that they really, truly love each other. Their personalities clash: She's bubbly and talkative, with a positive outlook on life, and he's reserved and quiet, with a bitter feeling about the world and everyone in it. Inevitably, external forces keep them separate: She has a boyfriend, and he has yet to get over his previous relationship. At this point, all of this sounds fine, if just more of the usual.
There's more context, though. The hook of this eventual-love story is that he is mostly paralyzed below the neck. To the movie's credit, it doesn't play that as an inherent obstacle. It's not as if Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke) is put off by his handicap, and she does more than tolerate his physical state. She accepts it as part, but not the extent, of the man Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is. Surely, she believes, there is more to this man than that.
The screenplay by Jojo Moyes (based on her novel) could stand to take a few lessons from its protagonist. As a character, Will is completely defined by that fact that he is quadriplegic. He is restricted to a wheelchair, which Will can operate because he has minimal mobility in his hands, and is prone to infections. He has a regular caretaker, but Will's problems are more than physical (more on that in a bit).
This is how Lou comes to meet him. She needs a job, and Will's mother Camilla (Janet McTeer) is looking for someone who can keep her son company, brighten up his mood, give him some hope, and maybe offer a little more than that.
Perhaps that last bit is the result of reading too much into Lou's awkward interview for the job. Her most memorable quality during the interview is the way the seam of her skirt rips, revealing a little more leg than she would prefer. Then again, Camilla notices it and also notices that Will notices it, so maybe that is something we're also supposed to notice. The other option is that the gag is simply a weird comic bit that tries to force a lighter mood upon the reveal of Will's handicap. Let's give the movie the benefit of the doubt and call it both.
The movie is deliberately trying to balance the light-hearted romance and the repercussions of Will's condition, and it doesn't quite work. Clarke is a fine, charismatic presence, but as a character, Lou becomes grating pretty quickly. Her quirks never feel natural. They feel calculated in such a way that we never, ever forget she's quirky. She has a, let's call it, distinct sense of fashion and prattles on with little to no sense of the situation in which she finds herself.
The point, of course, is that she is Will's polar opposite, and that's when we get into the distastefully insincere part of this budding romance. Will, again, is a character who exists in no meaningful way other than his quadriplegia. The movie's prologue shows the accident that resulted in his paralysis. Then, he was a "normal" guy. He had a job, a girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby), and a motorcycle. Moyes' "ironic" twist is that Will is struck by a motorcycle on a rainy morning that he decided not to ride his own bike.
There was, as he puts it, his life before the accident and what he sees as a complete lack of life now. He is bitter, not because that is the person he is, but because of his condition, and like Lou's quirkiness, Will's bitterness is the only discernible aspect of his personality that really matters here.
If that—to reduce the entirety of a person to a physical handicap—seems like the distasteful part, unfortunately, we haven't arrived there yet. There must be a conflict of some sort that keeps the lovers apart. Lou's unappreciative boyfriend (Matthew Lewis) and Will's frustration that his now ex-girlfriend is marrying his best friend (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), though, aren't enough for the kind of emotional response that Moyes and director Thea Sharrock want to yank from the audience's tear ducts.
Without revealing too much, the movie turns what is perhaps the most important decision of a person's life into a cheap plot device—a MacGuffin that transforms the characters' love into something of Pyrrhic victory. Me Before You doesn't care about the motivation for the decision (It's just another facet of diminishing Will as a person beyond his condition) or the questions surrounding it. It just wants us to think that it's so, very sad.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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