D: Thea Sharrock. DP: Remi Adefarasin. W: Jojo Moyes (based on her novel of the same name). Starring: Emilia Clarke/Sam Claflin/Janet McTeer/Charles Dance/Stephen Peacocke/Jenna Coleman/Samantha Spiro/Brendan Coyle/Matthew Lewis/Vanessa Kirby.
Usually obtaining the rights to a highly profitable bestselling novel is a coup. With the adaptation of Me Before You by the author herself, Jojo Moyes, the story has been opened to greater scrutiny. The film has received negative reactions from disability groups and has the filmmakers and author defending their project in the press.
Me Before You follows recently unemployed Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) who answers an ad for a carer of a disabled man. This man is Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a young handsome former entrepreneur whom after an accident is a quadriplegic. Louisa’s small village life is shaken and changed through her friendship with Will who cannot fathom the life ahead bound to his wheelchair and routine infections. Me Before You certainly did not read as young adult fiction. Its leads were written as twenty-seven and thirty-five, but here Will is made a tad younger. But mainly the filmmaking clearly targets the YA crowd drawing comparisons to adaptations like The Fault in Our Stars (2014), which are misguided.
Many changes exist between novel and film. Most are for the better with plot and characters scooped out for time. An entire element of Louisa’s backstory is removed and was the right choice. However, it does represent a crucial intimate turning point in their friendship, which Moyes mistakenly does not replace in her film script. Lousia’s family situation, specifically how she financially supports her parents as well as her single mom sister is glossed over. In a piece of flimsy commercial fiction sadly its adaptation by its own author removed the edges that allowed its couple to feel a bit three dimensional.
This includes the elements of Will’s situation and care. In the novel Louisa does tremendous research into Will’s care and the specifics of his daily maintenance are an important element in the couple’s progression. In the film we get another spirited montage that trivializes the actual outreach her character does in the book. By removing the specifics the romance is put to the forefront surely, but also the realism of the able-bodied versus the disabled is quite weak. This is at the core of audience’s negative reactions to the film. The book was better able to handle the scope of information while also having more beats of protest from Louisa (she quits at one point early on) that spark a debate about quality of life, the right to ones own death, and Will’s wish to go to Dignitas in Switzerland.
I present these arguments because they are valid and in a cinematic climate like today these reactions will probably hurt the film’s profits. The ending is causing controversy, but I do not believe the film or the novel endorse any specific choice. Yet for me Me Before You panders to the audience not only in its content, but in its filmmaking. First time film director Thea Sharrock creates a picturesque English town whose postcard castle hides many secrets. Yet her film seems not in her hands. It is overproduced from the get go. Louisa’s gregarious wardrobe feels like a Zooey Deschanel like gimmick and is relied on too much for humor. The soundtrack alone is relentless. Under every scene is music with barely a moment of emotional transparency allowed. A pivotal scene on a beach finally feels organic and it still has crashing waves underneath it.
Me Before You has some gorgeous leads that help support its romance package. Clarke, best know for her Mother of Dragons role on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is a smiley perky warm presence that is not given enough of her own story. Her chemistry with Claflin (Hunger Games Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2) is good, but not infectious the way Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdmas were in the Nicholas Sparks’ tent-pole adaptation The Notebook. Most romance films have been chasing The Notebook‘s formula for the past decade. Yet chemistry like that cannot be cast and that story works because the couple are eventually together despite the sad context. Me Before You sports a British cast that does their best to be supportive. Australian Stephen Peacocke is the most memorable as Will’s nurse Nathan who does the tremendous daily physical and intimate part of Will’s care.
Ultimately, Me Before You had roves of women crying in the ladies room afterwards and that is exactly what it wants. Yet for me its motives are too obvious from the onset so no tears for me. Its clipping pace never really allows you to fall in love with the pair. Maybe a bit with Clarke whose crinkly expressive face fills the frame for most of the first act. Yet by the end you just want her eyebrows to relax. This film is sure to wash out with this summer’s trends, but here’s hoping the next film tackling this subject handles is better. Maybe a film specifically using a disabled actor, which is surely limiting as there cannot be any narrative about the able bodied version of that character. Even disabled Christopher Reeve used able-bodied Lacey Chabert in his A&E television movie, The Brooke Ellison Story (2004), same with John Hawkes in The Sessions (2012). Yet neither dealt with suicide. Discussion for someone’s next production meeting. In the meantime you can miss Me Before You.