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Me Before You (2016)

DIRECTOR: Thea Sharrock

CAST: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis, Jenna Coleman

REVIEW:

There’s a difficult balance to handling this kind of medical-based “tearjerker” romance that walks a tightrope between moving and mawkish. For the most part, Me Before You by first-time director Thea Sharrock and adapted by Jojo Moyes from her own novel navigates this tricky act successfully, serving up a lighter touch and avoiding pitfalls of excessive mawkishness. It’s not a great film, but it’s a pleasant enough confection that serves up a little humor, romance, and tears.

Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is a quadriplegic, struck down in the prime of life by a motorcycle accident, who is determined to end his own life via assisted suicide at the end of a six month waiting period he has grudgingly granted his parents (Janet McTeer, Charles Dance), who hope he changes his mind. In an attempt to raise his spirits, he is paired with a companion, the sunny Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke), a small town shop girl with no caretaker experience and resigned to both poor job prospects and an unfulfilling relationship with a self-centered, fitness-obsessed boyfriend (Matthew Lewis). At first, the embittered Will is unwelcoming of the newcomer, but gradually their dynamic shifts into friendship, then into something more. In the end, however, Lou might have to face—and accept—that even love and her best efforts can’t shake Will’s resolve.

While the material could make this sound like a total downer, Me Before You manages to maintain about as upbeat and breezy a tone as can be expected. The first two-thirds or so are predominantly lighthearted; there is the background specter of Will’s ticking countdown, but the serious moments aren’t dwelled upon. The interactions between chatty, vaguely fumbling Lou and the closed-off, dry-witted Will are playful as they navigate their shifting dynamic from uncertainty on her part and borderline hostility on his to slowly thawing, to friendship, to something more, in enjoyable fashion. The often lighthearted tone refreshingly lets it avoid the mawkishness of something like Terms of Endearment (in the way it addresses a serious health condition with a lighter touch, if not in any of the plot specifics, it’s more in the vein of 50/50 or The Fault In Our Stars). The movie doesn’t pass judgment on Will’s decision. By his own admission, he loved his life before his accident—we get glimpses of him via home movies in his active, athletic pre-accident days—and finds his current circumstances intolerable. Even when he finds enjoyment in some things—a tropical vacation, or a classical concert—he finds the idea of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair unthinkable, and while love may enrich his final months, the movie doesn’t pretend it always magically “conquers all”.

The leads each have one or two claims to fame but aren’t overly familiar faces. Emilia Clarke’s perky, quirky Lou, whose chattiness is matched by her offbeat fashion sense, is worlds away in both looks and manner from her fierce “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones, while the good looks that served Sam Claflin as Finnick in three out of four Hunger Games installments and Snow White and the Huntsman‘s Prince William again suit him here as the brooding Will, who still looks suave and debonair even while confined to a wheelchair (at least after Lou gives him a shave) and was an active bon vivant before his accident reduced him to a closed-off man with an acid wit. The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable faces, at least to fans of British television, including UK veterans Janet McTeer and Clarke’s fellow Game of Thrones cast member Charles Dance as Will’s parents (who don’t get much to do besides a brief argument over their differing views of Will’s decision), Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter‘s Neville Longbottom) as Lou’s boyfriend, Doctor Who‘s Jenna Coleman as her sister, and Downtown Abbey‘s Brendan Coyle as her father.

Ultimately, Me Before You is unquestionably a romantic tearjerker tailor-made to send viewers reaching for their Kleenex, but a lighter touch makes it more enjoyable than the overbearing sobfest this story would have been in different hands. Fans of the genre should find it a worthy entry.

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