Thursday, June 09, 2016

Me Before You

ME BEFORE YOU (Thea Sharrock, 2016)

In broad strokes the romantic drama ME BEFORE YOU is a fairy tale of a sort. A sad young man rarely leaves the grounds of the castle where he lives. His parents worry about him to the point where the mother hires an exuberant young woman from the small English town to try and lift his spirit. In time she does. Whether they will continue together happily ever after is quite a bit trickier than it is in storybooks, though.

Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), or Lou for short, gets knocked down when she loses her job, but she gets up again and is willing to take virtually anything that can help support the parents, sister, and nephew she lives with. Although she’s never assisted a quadriplegic before, Lou is offered a well-paying position and six-month contract to be a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) in the family castle. She’s to be more of a companion than a home health care worker, which in its own way can be a greater challenge as there isn’t a medication or procedure for how she can make him feel better. Before he was hit by someone on a motorcycle, Will was a big mover and shaker in the London business world and highly active in his free time. The two years since he lost almost total use of his limbs and became confined to a wheelchair have not diminished the grief the 31-year-old feels over what his life has become.

Lou’s bubbliness and Will’s prickliness put them in opposition for awhile, but she is undeterred in wanting to make him happy. Eventually her openness and warmth softens Will, and he appears to be happier than he has been in a long time. Lou’s satisfaction with the progress she’s made takes a major hit, though, when she learns that, despite his better mood, Will still intends to go through with his long-planned, doctor-assisted suicide in Switzerland. Rather than quit, Lou is determined to show him all that life has to offer and to make it worth pressing on.

With her sparkly personality and bold wardrobe, Lou epitomizes the film type whose exceedingly whimsical nature is the cure-all for a man in need of reshaping his life. She’s Tinkerbell rather than a 26-year-old woman. At times director Thea Sharrock leads Clarke’s performance past familiar and adorable into shameless mugging. The character often seems to be at battle between being child-like but mature or childish. Her loving but frustrated selflessness with oblivious workout fiend boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) brings a needed edge to Lou. Clarke fares better when she doesn’t have to be unsustainably perky. For the significant stretch of ME BEFORE YOU when the romantic angle isn’t in play, chemistry builds between Lou and Will during their many conversations. Their evolution from a working relationship to friendship and beyond isn’t rushed and makes sense.

ME BEFORE YOU ventures into iffier territory when dealing with the right to die question. The problem arises because, first and foremost, this is a romance, not an issue film. The love story works because these are beautiful people speaking from their hearts and acting with concern for each other. That also means the most unpleasant aspects of Will’s condition are largely dealt with off-screen, lest they spoil the atmosphere. ME BEFORE YOU doesn’t have to be graphic in depicting the pain and lack of dignity that Will experiences, but the character’s wish is less easily understood when, all things considered, he’s doing well given the circumstances. Because this is Lou’s story, Will’s psychological state remains hidden.

Without fail Lou puts everyone else’s happiness before her own, so per narrative conventions, it is right that in the end she benefits from the sacrifices she makes. The ending thus seems a little unintentionally gross, as though the film’s events are a means to a deserving reward of putting her on the path to self-actualization. ME BEFORE YOU is an effective tearjerker, but dabbling with a controversial topic to yield more sobs cheapens the entire enterprise.

Grade: C+

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