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Film Review: Me Before You  *

By Preston Wilder

Could there be a more inappropriate title for a so-called romantic tearjerker than Me Before You? ‘You Before Me’ is the obvious formulation when it comes to love, or perhaps Us Before All – but the more selfish phrasing is par for the course in this ugly British comedy-drama, which tries for charming but becomes almost loathsome. Dramatically speaking, it’s a two-hander where one side stays stalled and impervious while the other does all the running. Sociologically speaking, it’s a case of the British working class getting schooled by the toffs on how to behave in the new, narcissistic Britain. It’s also shoddily made and gratingly acted.

The plot has a bubbly young woman named Lou (Emilia Clarke) taking a job as caregiver to recently paralysed Will (Sam Claflin), who’s a quadriplegic and also very rich. This is much the same plot as in Intouchables, the big French hit from a few years ago, only with a girl instead of a hefty African dude; one might also mention The Sound of Music, which is also similar except that Captain Von Trapp was emotionally (rather than physically) paralysed. Of the three, Intouchables – absurdly dismissed as racist by many American critics – is the most satisfying, toff and African turning out to be kindred spirits with a shared taste in anarchy. Me Before You, on the other hand, is like The Sound of Music in reverse – a case of effervescent Maria falling under the Captain’s sway, and learning to be more of a bastard.

Will is handsome, glum, sarcastic and invariably right. He knows horses, teaches Lou about subtitled French films, even instructs her on how to wear a dress. Will also urges our klutzy heroine to “put yourself first” – and that too turns out to be good advice, Lou’s empowerment rhymed with Will’s decision to kill himself via assisted suicide. In terms of drama, Will is a non-starter – a remote figure who, whether because he’s rich or disabled (or both), can’t be properly confronted or humiliated like a normal movie character. He doesn’t change, beyond cheering up a bit; Lou is the one who has to change, making the relationship quite unbalanced. There’s something distastefully paternalistic about this scenario, the superior male benefactor educating the foolish girl for his own amusement – even more so because Will is a rich snob and Lou a working-class lass who refers to pesto sauce as “green gravy”.

Performances might’ve saved the day, but they don’t. Claflin looks posh and pained, coming off like a stultified Hugh Laurie; Clarke is unintentionally funny. I don’t watch Game of Thrones (she plays Daenerys Targaryen) and I don’t think I could now, since I’d break out in fits of giggles every time she appeared. Trying for naïve, she ends up cartoonish, all nervous smiles, poleaxed expressions, furious grimacing and over-active eyebrows that seem to be starring in their own special movie; a scene where she opens birthday presents feels like she’s about to have a heart attack. The script is even worse, dealing in cheap contrivance – Lou finds out about Will’s secret plan just by happening to overhear his parents at a crucial moment – and avoiding the most controversial (and intriguing) aspect, the ethics of euthanasia.

There’s no debate here. Will has already decided to kill himself, and the film doesn’t really question that (it’s “his choice,” says his father briskly). Lou’s mum – who conspicuously wears a cross around her neck – briefly says it’s wrong but her objections are brushed away, as if to say only uneducated religious people could object to a quadriplegic offing himself. “This could be a good life, but it’s not my life,” declares Will simply, and that’s all he needs by way of justification; it’s all part of ‘Me Before You’, the prevailing philosophy – and it makes Lou a better person, or at least a more assertive one. Early on, she notes that sex with Will would be difficult, because “the girl would have to be on top”. By the end, that’s not so difficult.

This might still have been a good film with a bit more self-awareness – but consider, for instance, Lou’s machinations to lift Will’s spirits and (hopefully) get him to change his mind, which take up most of the movie. The two guys in Intouchables drove fast cars and wreaked havoc – but Lou takes Will to nice restaurants, and joins him on tropical holidays. Why should watching others swim and scuba-dive make him change his mind about dying? Surely Lou is deluding herself, doing things she wants to do under the guise of helping Will – ‘Me Before You’ beneath a veneer of philanthropy – and a better movie might’ve brought out that irony, but this isn’t that movie. Me Before You contains glitter, stripey bumblebee tights and two (2) music montages. Enough said.

 

 

 

ME BEFORE YOU 

DIRECTED BY Thea Sharrock

STARRING Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer

UK 2016                            110 mins.

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