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Non-Review Review: Me Before You

Me Before You works better than it really should.

There are points at which this romance dips into mandolin melodrama and gets lost in pop music montage, perhaps even over-extending itself through a series of almost episodic adventures. However, the film largely works. A lot of that is down to its willingness to address a potentially problematic theme head-on, investing its central characters with a sense of agency and dynamism that powers the film. However, a lot of that is down to the charm and strength of its two leads, particularly Emilia Clarke.

"Tom Hiddleston thinks he's got this sewn up," think both leads simultaneously.

“Tom Hiddleston thinks he’s got this sewn up,” think both leads simultaneously.

Me Before You could backfire spectacularly. It is the story of a young woman named Louisa Clark, who lives a fairly mundane life in a small town. She has been dating the same guy for seven years, worked in the same shop for what seems like a lifetime. Her sister seems to be going places, studying at university and raising a young child. Louisa is stuck just running in place, until she finds herself entrusted with the care of a young quadriplegic named Will Traynor. Traynor was a successful young man from a wealthy family, now living in solitude and isolation.

There is a sense that Me Before You could easily become exploitative or cynical. Louisa’s arc would seem to position Will as an enabler rather than a character, a young man trapped in this small corner of England whose strength and resolve empowers Louisa to adventure beyond her own comfort zones. Will is cultured and suave; his family owns the castle around which the local community is built. There are points at which Me Before You threatens to become a story about how Will ultimately makes Louisa a better person, particularly in its final scenes.

Tight friends.

Tight friends.

However, the film mostly avoids that potential problem by affording Will his own agency and arc within the narrative. Louisa is enriched and transformed through her exposure to Will and through the opportunities that he affords her, but the film is mindful that Will has his own perspective and his own priorities. Will is not merely a vehicle for Louisa’s transformation, he is not a shallow caricature of disability. Me Before You works so well because it allows Will the opportunity to take his own journey rather than serving as a passenger on Louisa’s adventures.

Like an pseudo-romance, Me Before You rests squarely on the charisma of its two leads. Sam Claflin is great as Will, but Emilia Clarke is fantastic as Louisa. If the two lead performances were not pitched so carefully, the entire film would fall apart. Clarke is whimsical and goofy without seeming like a broadly-drawn caricature. Claflin is initially antagonistic without seeming abrasive, but always remains mindful of his character’s arc. The two bounce off one another skilfully, and are ably supported by a cast including Janet McTeer, Charles Dance and Jenna Coleman.

Rain over me.

Rain over me.

The dynamic between the two leads carries the film far, even as the script suffers from an overly episodic structure. There are points in the movie when it feels like the plot amounts to little more than “… and then Louisa and Will do this”, a collection of vignettes rather than a singular story. Indeed, there is a sense that Me Before You could easily have been tightened, dropping one or two of these episodic adventures in order to offer a closer focus. In some ways, Me Before You feels like a BBC miniseries that has been edited down to the length of a feature film.

In order to keep the film’s runtime manageable while keeping all of these sequences, there are points at which Me Before You engages in a somewhat clichéd shorthand. There are several montages set to pop music, for example. There is no shortage of obvious symbolic imagery, particularly towards the film’s climax. In particular, the final scene focuses on a falling leaf in the most obvious of visual metaphors. It is a shame, because the cast work so hard to stop Me Before You tipping over the line into overblown melodrama.

"I'm sorry, you're standing in the way of the television. It's showing the Japanese garden scene from Kill Bill, Vol. 1."

“I’m sorry, you’re standing in the way of the television. It’s showing the Japanese garden scene from Kill Bill, Vol. 1.”

To be fair, director Thea Sharrock has a great eye for affecting imagery. Early in the film, there are several sequences set in the midst of a winter snow storm that look particularly beautiful and picturesque. There are some joyous long shots of Will and Louisa cutting loose that really capture the freedom and the excitement of their time together in contrast to the restraint present in the rest of the film. There is just a sense that Sharrock gets a little heavy-handed towards the end of the film.

At the same time, that final act is a large part of why Me Before You works as well as it does. In exploring Will’s sense of self and his autonomy, the movie reaches a somewhat bold and almost subversive conclusion that feels entirely true to all of the characters involved. There are awkward and heavy-handed moments, to be sure; at one point, a character voices a moral objection in a shot that consciously includes the crucifix hanging around their neck. Nevertheless, Me Before You has the courage of its convictions.

"It got hairy there for a while."

“It got hairy there for a while.”

Me Before You is not perfect. It is perhaps a little over-long and a little heavy-handed at times. However, it is elevated by two great central performances and a willingness to commit to its characters. It a very strong romantic melodrama, one that consciously affords its subjects their dignity.

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