Emilia Clarke film

ME BEFORE YOU Review: Frustratingly Roundabout But Ultimately Worth It

Monday, June 06, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Me Before You

Director: Thea Sharrock
Writer: Jojo Moyes
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Jenna Coleman, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Me Before You, the feature directorial debut of Thea Sharrock (a veteran of British television series Call the Midwife and The Hollow Crown), is a film full of soaring emotion, probing questions about whether humans can choose their fate, and a transporting sense of place. It is also clunky, the cinematic equivalent of stubbing your toe repeatedly on the same table leg you’ve had for years. You don’t do any significant damage, but the annoyance persists. Much like how your day goes on after every bitterly uttered expletive and light rubdown of your continually bruised extremity, Sharrock’s movie recovers, oftentimes with grace and beauty.
At the film’s start, Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is a suave, well-groomed member of the financial elite. He struggles to get out of bed because that would take him away from his gorgeous girlfriend and equally gorgeous life. But he puts on a suit and heads out into the pouring rain in what looks to be a hip part of London. He flags a taxi while chatting on his phone with a business associate, not noticing a motorcycle barreling toward him until it’s too late. The foreshadowing is laid on a little thickly, but a shocking, life-changing moment perhaps requires that kind of overzealous treatment. No matter what it appears to be game over for Will.

Life is no longer gorgeous and that girlfriend is out of the picture by the time we catch up with Will, two years later and nearly fully paralyzed from the neck down -- he has limited movement in his right forefinger and thumb, enough to direct his motorized wheelchair. He lives at home with his parents in a castle in a sleepy English town. Meanwhile, Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones) is a recently laid off waitress looking to keep her parents afloat in a stagnant economy. Lou’s career counselor gets her an interview with Will’s mother, Camilla (Janet McTeer), whose desperation to find a caretaker for Will allows her to look past Lou’s complete lack of experience in anything related to caring for another human being, let alone one with severe health problems.

Emilia Clarke has turned a corner with her role as Lou. While she has shown for six years on her HBO fantasy series that she can do “power” and “authority” well, her character on that show puts her at an intentional distance from the audience -- she is a leader of world-changing consequence and largely unknowable on a personal level because of it. Her last attempt at breaking through as a star on the big screen, 2015’s Terminator: Genisys, was wobbly, although most of that movie’s faults can be blamed on other members of its creative team. But in Me Before You, Clarke is bubbly, quick with a smile, and full of energy. She is eager and determined to help a man who, at the start of their relationship, is cold and hateful and unwilling to give an inch so he can wallow in his pain and dwell on the bad break he’s gotten in life. Lou’s conciliatory nature is a problem for her because she gives up everything she has for everyone but herself, so much so that she doesn’t even admit to her employer -- a man she spends eight hours of every day with -- for several months that she has educational or career ambitions.

Eventually the cracks begin to show in Will’s stony facade. The relationship that forms between Lou and Will is real, peppered with kind moments of giving from both parties. Lou formulates itineraries to get Will out of his own head, to get him to stop thinking about his despair over his predicament and the ever-present threat of a deadly bout of pneumonia hanging over him. After nearly two years of Will being a shut-in, Lou gets him to agree to a trip to a horse race, a birthday party, attending a wedding, a night at a classical concert, and more. Instead of dropping Will off after the formal-attire concert, she sits with him in the car for a few minutes so he can remember the feeling of attending a concert “with a girl in a red dress.” Will uses his wealth to help Lou’s family out of their economic hole, not through charity but by finding dignified and well-paid work for Lou’s dad. And in one of the movie’s most joyful moments, Will gets Lou a present she has clamored for since she was a child but had never been able to find as an adult.

That sense of quiet dignity gives Me Before You its finest moments and it provides the movie with a deep question about morality. In the middle of the film, Lou learns why her employment is only meant to be a temporary six-month gig. It’s hard to take and the question -- whether Will has the right to end his life via assisted suicide -- is a thorny one multiple people in the film struggle to answer definitively for themselves. It gives the second half of the film its shape, as Lou and Camilla work to convince Will to not go through with his plan, all while Lou realizes her feelings for the man she has spent so much time caring for physically. It’s an issue every audience member will have to decide, as well. The movie’s use of the question is presented in such a matter-of-fact way, with so many differing viewpoints, that it’s a struggle. But for a film released in the heart of blockbuster shoot-’em-up season to even contemplate these questions is a refreshing surprise -- that it’s done with so much grace is a near miracle.

Sharrock’s direction has plenty of reserved but functional style. She makes the outdoors a wonderland of saturated colors for Lou, whose love of idiosyncratic fashion seems borne out of her surroundings -- England looks positively beautiful in Lou’s eyes, not the drab gray expanse it tends to be on film. And yet, when Will watches from his isolated position in his room, nature looks distant, its colors becoming more muted as if they’re fading away. Lou’s bedroom at her parents’ house is, much like her clothes, cluttered and full of pop-art colors. Will’s room is all empty space to show how isolated he has become in his life. As the two characters become closer and their personalities begin to form a better understanding of themselves and the world around them, their surroundings begin to look more like each other, too. Lou learns that there is space in her life for thinking about the sadness in the world and Will learns that not everything is dreary and out of reach -- Sharrock finds a way through color correction to blend their previous stances into a new direction for them together. This is textbook filmmaking stuff, as old as the language of cinema itself, but it is so often ignored that it’s nice to see Sharrock do it and do it so well.

None of this is to say that Me Before You is a perfect film. It is far from that, in fact. It stumbles time after time by not letting Clarke and Claflin’s chemistry set the agenda. It manufactures drama out of Will’s circumstances in the phoniest way. Lou “discovers” a hagiographic video on Will’s laptop that depicts all of his extreme sports exploits, showing all the ways he cannot use his body anymore -- as if his full-body paralysis would not have been a tragedy anyway. The movie is largely unconcerned with the class conflicts that could arise between the blue-collar Lou and the mega-rich Will, who, again, lives in a castle and can afford to financially weather even the worst health problems. Lou has a long-term boyfriend, Patrick (Matthew Lewis of the Harry Potter films), whose fitness fanaticism and entrepreneurial ambitions are little more than an obstacle in the way of Lou and Will expressing their feelings for each other. It employs a deus-mother ex machina when, at a wedding, the godmother of the bride tells Lou what a prize Will is, no matter what kind of shape he’s in -- she is never seen again, making her nothing more than a plot instigation. It’s a series of delaying tactics to keep the most emotional moments at bay, and while they are not uniformly bad, they do not let the movie sing as much as it is capable of doing.

And yet, despite these self-defeating moments, Me Before You recovers, sometimes within seconds of introducing its most wrongheaded elements. As cheap as the discovery of the video on Will’s laptop is, it comes at a time when Lou cannot pry herself away from his sickbed -- he has come down with another sickness that may lead to pneumonia. Patrick’s jealousy leads to the movie’s best jokes at a birthday dinner. And the godmother moment is immediately followed by the film’s most romantic moment, a tipsy, butterflies-in-the-stomach dance at the wedding, with Lou sitting on Will’s lap as they smile like they don’t have a care in the world.

It’s a film that may struggle to get where it needs to be, but in the end it makes the right decisions. Those choices may hurt, which is probably why the movie procrastinates in getting there. It makes Me Before You and ultimately rewarding experience despite its many frustrating moments.

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