Me Before YouReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/02/16 22:02:40
“Me Before You” is a film that is almost certainly destined to go down as this generation’s equivalent of “Pretty Woman.” If that quote seems slightly more blurb-happy that usual from me, it should be noted that this is a sentiment that cuts both ways. I suspect that as one of the few full-on screen romances in a summer filled with superhero extravaganzas and other such spectacles, it may well attract otherwise underserved audiences looking for something relatively free of explosions or origin stories and the incredibly charming and winning central performance from Emilia Clarke should see her transcend from her cult status as the bold and fearless Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones” to that of a full-on movie star in much the same way that Julia Roberts did when she strapped on those thigh-high boots once upon a time. She makes for such a delightful presence here that, like Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” she almost manages to distract from the fact that her performance is in the service of a story that is a cheesy and cliche-driven soap opera at its best moments and a morally and ethically challenged monstrosity that tries to take potentially troubling material and sugar coat it as a way to avoid dealing with the real world issues that it inevitably raises as a result.Clarke plays Louisa “Lou” Clark and a more winsome screen heroine has not been seen in years—she dresses like a little girl raiding her big sister’s wardrobe, she has an eminently sexless goof for a boyfriend, she is endearingly clumsy and she helps to support her large family by working in a tea shop where her sunny good nature proves to be such a balm to the quaint clientele that when she offers to wrap up the remains of one elderly woman’s sandwich, the diner practically weeps with joy and gratitude. Everything at the shop is so sweet, in fact, that it seems as if most of the customers have succumbed to diabetes because it is forced to close down and Lou, who has no other obvious job skills of which to speak, is forced to look for a new job.
Luckily for her, after one quick trip to the unemployment office, she lands a well-paying temp gig helping to care for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), whose future as the most dashing, daring and debonair young man of our time (think Christian Grey without the overt kinks) was scuttled when he was hit by a motorcycle and permanently paralyzed from the neck down. This might seem to be a bit much to handle for someone who barely seems able to tie her own shoes, but as Lou learns from Will’s mother (Janet McTeer) and father (Charles Dance) during her first visit to the Traynor family castle (you heard me—an actual castle of an expanse that would fill most royal families of note with turret envy), they already have a male nurse (Stephen Peacocke) to do all of the actual heavy lifting, bathing, wiping and other duties that a quadriplegic might require assistance with. No, aside from the slight possibility of needing to maybe once in a while give him some medication—a notion that practically sends her into a fainting spell—her basic tasks appear to consist entirely of showing up on time and making sure that he is happy.
This would seem to be the cushiest gig imaginable—did I mention that Will and his family live in a giant-ass castle?—but it turns out that Will is now a cynical grump who is not much in the mood for anything and who is especially resistant to the notion of anyone trying to cheer him up. Quickly enough, however, Lou’s spunky nature begins to grow on him and before long, he finds himself succumbing to the charms of her kooky ineptness and even reciprocates by showing her that movies with subtitles are not necessarily things to fear and that her self-absorbed dimwit of a boyfriend may not exactly be the one for her. Alas, just when it seems as if things are on track to wrap up earlier than usual, the film that up till now had played like “Pretty Woman” with ramps takes a sharp right turn into dramatic waters that cannot be discussed without delving into spoiler territory.
As it turns out, despite having far more material advantages than most people in his position and a growing affection for the ever-adorable Lou, he is so despondent over the loss of his previous athletic lifestyle and the constant pain that he is in (not that we are ever allowed any real sense of the latter at any point) that he has already decided to end his life at a facility in Switzerland while promising his mother that he would spend the next six months pondering that choice. Now, having finally grasped that her real job is to inspire Will, who she is now in love with, to want to continue to live, she begins planning a series of outings and vacations—ranging from a trip to the wedding of the fiancée who left him after his accident to a trip to a tropical resort where he gets to smile benignly while she does all sorts of neat stuff—that will hopefully inspire him to change his mind.
For roughly its first hour or so, “Me Before You” is a dumb film but a relatively inoffensive one—as romantic melodramas go, you and I have seen better than this but we have also seen far worse—but it becomes a deeply offensive one once the key plot point is finally revealed. I have no problem with the notion of people choosing euthanasia in real life as a way of bringing an end to prolonged and irreversible suffering but I would argue that if you are going to introduce it as a plot point in the film, you have to make a strong and convincing case for it lest it seem like a sleazy plot device designed solely to jerk tears from the audience. Films like “Who’s Life Is It, Anyway,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside” all involved euthanasia, for example, but in each of those cases, they grappled with the pros and cons of the issue in a serious and thought-provoking manner and even if they didn’t necessarily sway your own particular viewpoint on the subject, they at least honored the subject with intelligent consideration that generally did not overboard into total mawkishness.
By comparison, “Me Before You” is kind of stunning in its deliberately antiseptic and decidedly tone-deaf in the way that it handles the subject. Aside from one or two moments that are included solely to milk things for maximum poignancy (such as a trip to a race track where Lou ends up getting Will’s wheelchair stuck in the mud), the refusal of the film to depict any of the messy and painful reality of life as a quadriplegic not only seems like a cop-out designed to avoid putting off audiences but seems awfully counterproductive to the purpose of trying to make us understand why Will would still be considering ending his life even after meeting the likes of Lou. The film tries to invoke some debate regarding euthanasia amongst its characters but does it in such an awkwardly manner that audiences on both side of the issue will find themselves cringing. I am lucky enough not to have any close friends or family members in the kind of situation depicted here but I still found myself getting angered at what I was seeing and I can only imagine how it might come across to anyone who has, especially in the way that it handles (or doesn’t, as the case may be, the final scenes). As the film was based on a best-selling novel, there is the temptation to suggest that something got lost in translation in the journey from the page to the screen but seeing as how the book’s author, Jojo Moyes, also did the screenplay, I will a.) assume that the book and film are reasonably similar and b.) will make sure that the book never lands on my reading list.
And yet, as repellent as “Me Before You” ultimately is, there is no denying the effectiveness of the performance by Emilia Clarke. On paper, her character is presented in such an infantilized manner that most right-minded people might tire of her and her aggressively cutesy and quirky ways very quickly. And yet, despite playing someone that even Greta Gerwig might find to be a bit too twee for her own good, Clarke somehow finds a way of making her appealing throughout. Even when it goes unashamedly for the most cliched moments imaginable—yes, there is a scene where, after wearing mismatched clothing for an hour or so, she turns up in a fancy red dress and we realize that she cleans up real nice—she manages to find a way to make them work. She can’t quite make the relationship between Lou and Will fully click—Claflin is just a little too smug and standoffish, even at his more vulnerable moments—but the moments that do work between them are almost entirely her doing.A film like “Me Before You” is the kind that puts a critic into a bit of a quandary in regards of how to approach it. On the one hand, the film as a whole is a largely monstrous concoction that makes the asinine adaptations of the works of Nicolas Sparks seem almost palatable by comparison and will almost certainly inspire equal parts anger and annoyance from most right-thinking moviegoers. On the other hand, the performance from Emilia Clarke is undeniably winning and if the film turns out to be a hit (and I have an awful suspicion that it will), it will no doubt supercharge her career by showing that she can do more than wrangle CGI dragons and such. If that happens, here is hoping that this will lead to better film roles in the future and that she can pull the plug on projects like this.
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