Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
During an interview with the director of the new film Me Before You, Thea Sharrock noted the film could easily be compared to the classic tearjerker about young love, Love Story. And the juxtaposition to that film, along with more recent cinematic love stories such as The Notebook and The Fault in Our Stars, and her film is clear…at least on the surface. But watching the film in a theater, it eventually reminded me of another on-screen story of love film…the beloved cult classic Harold and Maude. And I make this association as a statement of high praise, as someone who considers that film to be one of the most romantic of all time.
Aesthetically the two films may seem too different to make such a bold comparison; Harold and Maude has touches of dark comedy and shabby naturalistic look. Me Before You, by comparison, relishes a glossy, commercial rom-com style more common in the Richard Curtis films. But both romantic dramedies are films which subvert their familiar cinematic structures specifically to heighten their emotion moments and transverse audience expectations. And like Harold and Maude, Me Before You focuses on the thematic question, how well are we living our lives? How receptive are we to the world around us; regardless of physical ability, economics, and even the limited time we have? And in both films, the tensions between undeniable true love and one’s need for personal choice gradually come into focus and challenges both the characters and audiences. While their love opens the world up around them, the desire (or need) by a character to maintain control over their life, even if that ultimately means choosing death, slowly seems to be the tragic inevitable. Both films feature characters planning to end their lives; Maude making this decision due to her increasing age (80), and in Me Before You, the character of Will chooses euthanasia after an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down two years earlier.
Unlike Harold and Maude, Me Before You is less clear about who’s living or lived the fuller life. Will by all accounts had a full life before his accident, but depression caused him to essentially drop out of the world after his injury. By comparison, Louisa (Lou) is very much a part of her world…but her world seems very small and safe by comparison. But in both cases, their affection for one another (first platonic and eventually romantic) opens them up, encouraging them to take the risks and to experience what the world has to offer in new ways. Will becomes more willing to re-enter the world, even as this new version of himself (despite never fully identifying), while Lou steps out of her own comfort zone to experience completely new things, even those experiences which frighten her.
But the subversive element of Me Before You (like Harold and Maude) is the fact that while both note that love can make life easier…it isn’t a guaranteed to make life worth living for someone else. A movie Me Before You has been superficially compared to is the Joel Schumacher film Dying Young (1991), a film about a critically ill young man (Campbell Scott) and his caregiver (Julia Roberts) falling in love. The film tells us this is a true and deep love between these two characters. But when the man voices his desire or need to end his long fight with cancer, the response from Roberts’s character is to shame him for making a decision which places himself above their love. She tells him, and the audience, that such a choice is selfish, even if decisions about his own health and body is arguably exactly the time to be selfish in life. She is not asking him to keep fighting for himself…she asks him to fight as a demonstration of his love for her.
The message of that film is disturbing as it turns a personal right to choose into something narcissistic. Of course, the reaction is completely understandable, and both Harold and Maude and Me Before You do show characters with the same instinct to save the one they love from death. In Harold and Maude, Harold goes so far as to call the ambulance to save her, despite her resistance. And one of the most painful scenes in Me Before You is the confrontation between Lou and Will over his ultimate decision. Similar to the previously mentioned scene in Dying Young, however, Me Before You shows nuance and empathy towards the characters struggling. Lou first begs that he ultimately not make that choice…and then, like Roberts throws out the accusation that making that decision means he’s a selfish person. Will by comparison, after matter-of-factly telling her his plans, at first tries to hide behind his choice, claiming it’s an altruistic decision…only to reveal and take ownership of the fact that it is a selfish decision; but in matters of life (and death) he has the right to be selfish. And the somewhat remarkable aspect of Me Before You is, the filmmaker behind this movie don’t suggest Will making a selfish decision makes him a bad or selfish human being; nor do they pity, encourage or romanticize such a desperate decision. In many ways, novelist/screenwriter Jojo Moyes and director Thea Sharrock appear completely nonjudgmental of Will’s choice. The film doesn’t care if the other characters (or audience) around him agree with or even understand Will’s decision…simply that he’s given the absolute authority to make the ultimate choice.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is I don’t believe the specifications of Will’s injury are as important to the plot as one might initially expect. There’s arguably far more details in the book about his struggles with pain and daily challenges. One particularly dark chapter about a desperate suicide attempt is left as just a visual reference in the film. While it doesn’t avoid the realities of a man in his position, the movie is more concerned with the current debate around euthanasia as a personal right and how we define “the right to die with dignity.” When euthanasia has been addressed in films previously, it’s usually been presented more as an extension of hospice care, which is not the case with the character of Will. He also appears to have every benefit available to him as an upper-class English man, as the film is also clearly interested in looking at how class and economic influence our personal freedom. In fact, everyone but Will seems to disagree with his choice regarding assisted suicide; right up to the very end there is hope among them that he won’t make the ultimate decision to end his life. I suspect most audiences will question his decision, if not outright disagree with the character’s actions. However, Will never asks permission or approval to make the decision…he simply demands the right to make it for himself. But again the film seems to stress the controversial idea that giving everyone the right to make these decisions on an entirely individual basis is how we define human dignity. And as an act of love, those who love him are willing to be by his side despite their own reservations regarding the choice he’s determined to make.
I don’t want to get bogged down with addressing Claflin’s external performance as Will beyond stating he does an excellent job inhabiting the physicality of his character. However, the more interesting aspects of Claflin’s performance is the emotional journey he has to go on as Will to make him a fully formed, singular character. The entire film’s essentially told from Lou’s perspective, not Will’s, and he’s required to play a reserved, internalized character throughout most of the film. On the surface, his character’s journey may seem smaller, but the way he has to project his character opening back up to the world as a new man is remarkable to observe. He has fewer opportunities to really show his internal emotions and state of mind, but Claflin manages to find those moments and express the character’s arc with a subtle yet stunning beauty. And there are a few moments when he gives in to those overwhelming emotions with a gut-wrenching honesty…like someone drilling within themselves in order to play those scenes. He never goes big, but there is always an authenticity onscreen when playing those scenes.
Emilia Clarke is a kind of perfect fit for the role of Lou, and it makes you appreciate the range she shows on Game of Thrones. While there’s a risk of her being defined as just the manic pixie dream girl, her sparkling brand of appealing weirdness, without a clawing cuteness, makes her both likable and identifiable. And like Claflin, she finds an arc for her character that parallel’s his own, as a woman stepping out of her comfort zone for the first time. Her own physical embodiment of Lou shows a woman living her life wrapped in the comfortable safety of the familiar so even Clarke’s posture changes throughout the film, from a slouch to a straight back. Likewise, her interactions with her character’s predictable boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) changes throughout the film from a kind of warm, settled predictability to a suffocating co-dependence.
Director Thea Sharrock proves to be an excellent director and attacks the material with the confidence you want to see from a first-time director. She has a clear understanding of the film’s comic tone; a tone she maintains throughout most of the film. And she has a clear understanding of how that light, comic approach ultimately heightens the emotional impact the film leads to. She isn’t shrill or saccharine about the sentimentality, but she also embraces it without a hint of cynicism about “that type of romantic film.” Even when a few directorial choices (often leftover references from the book) miss their mark and the film has an initial rough start (it stumbles over some narrative set up early on), the movie as a whole comes together beautifully. Arguably, there’s a bit too much pop music used upfront (especially considering Craig Armstrong’s underused sweet and simple score). But several of the musical choices made towards the end prove to be perfect choices. Yes, the pop music interlude in a romantic movie is cliché, but when done well, they can also simulate the heightened emotions for the audience the character feels on screen in that moment. And the cinematography of the entire movie truly is stunning to behold; a movie that becomes more and more bright, vibrant, and refreshing as the characters open their hearts. I’m not certain if this was a decision made by writer Jojo Moyes and/or Thea Sharrock, but essentially all the supporting characters have been softened. While that decision makes the movie lacking much conflict, the movie’s desire to have empathy towards all the characters was arguably a smart change for a movie about such complicated and controversial choices.
Even with a slightly conventional romantic plot, Me Before You is more nuanced than one would expect from a big summer movie release; especially the filmmaker’s willingness to take on the controversial issue of euthanasia. Just the way the book became a book club favorite because it asked tough questions about an important issue and attempted to open the door for conversations (from both sides), the film succeeds because it is so willing to take on these issues…and ask audiences to come in with the same open-mindedness. It’s about a subject which desperately needs to be opened for debate; but frames it within an earnest, heartfelt romance. A romance which dares to suggest sometimes even the greatest love isn’t enough.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)