Director: Thea Sharrock
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Clafin, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis, Charles Dance, Janet McTeer
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release Date: June 3rd
Me Before You opens with a scene depicting how the film’s male lead, Will Traynor (Clafin) suffered the spinal cord injury that leaves him almost completely paralysed. Taking the film’s leads as the ‘me’ and ‘you’ addressed in the title, it’s a nicely literal introduction to Will before he meets the ‘you’ – in this case, Louisa Clark (Clarke), an aimless manic pixie dream 26 year-old who stumbles into the position of carer for Will, because she needs the money to seemingly support her entire family. No pressure.
However, as the film progresses, and we get to know Will and Louisa getting to know each other, the title Me Before You comes to mean something different, hinting towards a stubborn selfishness that characterises Will throughout. The sporty go-getter lifestyle he led before his accident has been lost with the lapsed synapses, embittering him beyond repair, but while it is easy to sympathise with his situation, it is harder to actually like him – particularly as the film takes a dark turn to reveal that he is planning to take his own life within six months. This seems like a fairly fundamental flaw of the film, but not one I’d attribute to Sam Clafin, who physically inhabits the role with stoic grace. Will is just too underdeveloped — and I don’t mean he hasn’t been doing his physio. He’s less a character, more a stony-faced emoji. There’s something of Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey about how utterly uncompromising he ultimately proves to be, and the power imbalance between himself and Louisa. If this is the new normal for the genre, then maybe we need to interrogate our values.
Speaking of interrogating values, the conclusion that the film ultimately suggests – that Will’s death would provide Louisa with an inheritance generous enough to live a freer, ‘bolder’ and richer life – is, to put it mildly, extremely troubling. That the film adopts a varied tone and operates within this particular genre to attempt to make its argument about the right to die accessible, is laudable; but, I find myself struggling to justify, on any level, the suicide of a main character being represented as an act which enables another person. There isn’t enough scope within the film to convincingly make this argument, which at best, is a tired rehashing of a pretty patronising trope of the newly-inspired, recently-bereaved lover (at worse, it is morally reprehensible).
So, that’s bad – but the film is not a total loss. In its lighter moments, director Thea Sherrock’s background in theatre becomes strongly, effectively apparent. The setpiece of Louisa’s birthday party earns the film an extra star from me, for neatly representing the state of play among all characters (with one especially good joke courtesy of former Neville Longbottom, Matthew Lewis, as Louisa’s boyfriend). Sherrock mines humour from the deep darkness of the source material, and the film’s many awkward introductions and scenes of low-stakes banter, particularly between Louisa and her sister, are broadly enjoyable. This film does small talk well, but when it comes to real talk, it just can’t measure up.
Performances elsewhere are, like Clafin’s, better than the writing suggests they should be. Emilia Clarke’s unbridled enthusiasm and joie de vivre (again, very theatrical) complement Clafin’s performance to spark easy chemistry, as well as genuine affect for Louisa, even though her characterisation as scripted is predictable and simplistic. Even seasoned supporting actors like Charles Dance and Janet McTeer struggle with the stodgy melodramatic exposition they’re given as Will’s parents, and Jenna Coleman is all but wasted in her limited role as Louisa’s sister.
Promising but uneven, Me Before You has some strong performances and moments of humour and pathos but is too weakly written, structured and developed for its message to have legs.