Megan McDonough ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Editor’s Note- This review contains spoilers.
Close your eyes. Imagine two people. One is a seemingly ordinary woman with somewhat quirky habits living an average life—boyfriend, annoying family, steady low-wage job. She comes from a small town and knows very little of the world beyond it. The other is a brooding man of immense life experience: witty, domineering and sarcastic, with little interest in anyone or anything but himself. He’s had many great experiences and amazing adventures, but he’s unhappy. Somehow, these two characters are going to fall and love. It’s an age old tale of romance dating all the way back to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but here’s the kicker: the man is quadriplegic.
Based on Jojo Moyes bestselling novel of the same name, Me Before You depicts such a romance. Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke plays protagonist Lou Clark—a chipper, quirky, small town girl desperately in need of a job. She finds one working as caregiver to Will Traynor, a sulky but acerbic disabled man living a life of solitary misery in his wealthy family’s estate. The film touts all the usual clichés of the genre with one caveat that changes everything: Will Traynor is paralyzed from the neck down. There’s no jumping-lifting-making out in the rain or literal chasing after the one you love, and there’s definitely no passionately athletic lovemaking. The replacements for these typical romantic actions are found in sillier and smaller (but also more intimate) moments that Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin really make count. The charisma, humor, and occasional intensity that both actors supply create a love story based on an unusual but engaging relationship.
Unfortunately, their chemistry is about all that truly shines during the film.
Many pitfalls come from the matter of adapting book to film. The novel is first person narration where readers get to know Lou really, really well; they get to see the world through her eyes. In the novel, Lou’s trepidation about trying new things is tied directly to the fact she was sexually assaulted, a plot point that was left out of the movie entirely. Furthermore, Lou’s relationship with boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) in the film seems senseless, while the novel reveals that Patrick was quite different before he became a fitness buff, and that Lou really loved him. Lou’s sex drive and immediate attraction to Will is something else that’s lost in translation. This very much flattens Lou as a character and makes her more of a source of comic relief than a sympathetic character.
Similar things happen with Will Traynor. While Sam Claflin makes good use of the dialogue and dry moments that he’s given, and we do get a short clip of Will before the accident, it’s hard to understand what it is about Will’s life that makes Will want to die. Part of what made the book both intriguing and heartbreaking was the repeated descriptions of frustrations experienced by those confined to a wheelchair: different wheels are needed for different terrains; ramps are needed to enter buildings; wheel chairs can’t fit through narrow spaces. Quadriplegia adds another layer: an almost complete lack of agency; threat of illness; body temperature regulation problems; spasms and near constant pain. The film glosses over these realities at best or completely ignores them at worst. The life-loving disabled characters that the book offers are omitted, making Will the sole voice of the disabled experience. In losing all of these factors, the film seems to imply that Will’s desire to end his own life is simply because living life in a wheelchair is pointless. It makes Will’s ending—death by assisted suicide—less of a shock (as it was in the books) and more of an inevitability.
Lou’s lack of development and the uncomplicated portrayal of Will’s disability disappointingly fit right in with Hollywood’s usual sexism and ableism, and the film suffers for it.
That being said, Me Before You isn’t all bad. It drew tears where it was supposed to—mostly with the help of well-placed Ed Sheeran songs—and offered a lot of laughs. There wasn’t a stiff moment between Clarke and Claflin, and supporting roles played by Matthew Lewis, Jenna Coleman, and Charles Dance, among others, gave the film a nice texture. It was a strong debut for director Thea Sharrock, whose primary experience is with the stage and not the screen, which was quite apparent. Sharrock and seasoned cinematographer Remi Adefarasin make stunning use of the filming location—Pembroke Castle and the surrounding village—with loads of wide and aerial shots. There were a number of moments where poor CGI and overbearing sound editing got distracting, but mostly, the technical aspects of the film were on par.
The main problem was that the movie left something to be desired. It’s a love story that shouldn’t be simple, but is. It doesn’t feel like Lou Clark’s trip to Paris and Will’s benefaction comes from a place of deep passion between the two. Will’s struggle doesn’t seem to be much of one, and it makes the impact of his death all the less powerful. At times, Will even seems like a plot prop, something meant to drive Lou’s character forward.
Likely one of the few portrayals of disability that audiences will see this year, Me Before You had the chance to do and be so much more, but it didn’t take it, and that was it’s greatest mistake. Moyes’ novel touched on the reality of disability, the moral ambiguity of assisted suicide, and the variety of opinion both subjects. This was a chance for her to build on her story with Hollywood’s help. Instead, they stripped it of its most unique qualities, dressed it up with a glittery cast, and called it a day. Transitioning from book to the big screen, it becomes just another one of Hollywood’s unfortunate forays into using disability for plot and profit.
Cheaply saccharine and unexpectedly trite, Me Before You fails to capture the heart of the genre while also refusing to bring anything new to the table.
Overall grade: C
Watch The Trailer: