“There is something wonderful about knowing that the person next to you is also bawling their eyes out and you’re sharing that with them. I think that’s a hugely cathartic thing. That side of it, I’m really proud of.”
Note: This review contains spoilers.
“Nothing here about you needing skills,” says the unemployment counselor, peering into his computer screen. Lou (Emilia Clarke) smiles brightly, as the counselor nods. “It’s perfect for you!”
Perhaps it’s perfect enough. As you’ve already seen, just a few scenes in to Me Before You, Lou’s a quirky sort, fond of brightly colored tights and vintage miniskirts, prone to smile enchantingly and stumble appealingly. You know too that she’s just lost her position as a waitress at a British tourist spot called the Castle and, owing to her dad also being out of work, a new job would be helpful. You might guess that she feels lucky to find this possibility, one that doesn’t require she be trained or have experience or know much of anything at all.
She can’t know now just how difficult the job will be, but you have an idea. Based on Jojo Moyes’ popular 2012 novel, the movie sends Lou headlong into an emotional and moral mess, wherein she’s taking care of a quadriplegic. Not just any quadriplegic, but a man about her age who is generically handsome and extraordinarily wealthy, a young man of a certain class and expectation, furious and resentful that his life has taken this turn following an incident in which he was struck by a motorcycle. Indeed, Will (Sam Claflin) is so angry that he’s stuck in a situation that is “not my life”, as he puts it, that he’s determined to end it. He’s gotten his mother Camilla (Janet McTeer) and father Steven (Charles Dance) to agree that he can end it by way of assisted suicide in Switzerland.
Predictably, his mother is less than enamored of this idea, hence her decision to hire Lou, not a nurse, but Lou, who is Emilia Clarke, minus the dragons and decked out like a Manic Pixie Kewpie Doll. Noting carefully how nervous and energetic and bumbling Lou is during a first interview, mom hires her on the spot, hoping against hope that her son will take a liking to her and who knows, decide to stay alive to live out a romantic-comedic kind of storyline.
He does fall in love. He does not, however, change his mind about killing himself, and so, the rub. The film crushes together any number of tropes, from the savior pixie to the flawed hero to the melodramatic lessons learned by tragedy. It’s inspired a short range of responses from disability activists, some worried that it presents a life with disability as “not worth living”, and some noting that it supports the idea of choice, that individuals might decide how to live or end their lives. That Will is so set on his plan, no matter that he discovers options, might say more about the privileged young white man stereotype than about the disabled young man stereotype, but the film doesn’t offer much in the way of fine lines.
You might even make the case that Will is more or less a prop, a means to another end, for Lou. This focus unveils a whole other set of problems and offenses. As much as it might be a shift for the pixie dream girl to serve as center of her story rather than as a goal or incentive for the boy in her story, in this case, her centering involves making choices based on which boy offers her what.
When she meets Will, she’s already dating another guy, Patrick (Matthew Lewis), a dork of the first order who not only expects her to watch him run laps as he trains for events, but also wears a t-shirt pronouncing himself the “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” in whatever unnamed but mightily symbolic teeny town it is they inhabit. The choices attached to Patrick are obviously dim, but it takes her some time to see that particular light. Her parents are supportive if needy, and she’s got the requisite supportive confidant-younger sister Trina (Jenna Coleman), with whom she spends a movie minute that couldn’t be more clichéd it if tried: they lie side by side on the bed with their adorably socked feet on the wall, sharing their hopes and dreams and oh, so intimate and so sweet and so thuddingly familiar.
You see how Lou might have a hankering to escape, though she doesn’t see it. This is annoying, too, because this notion becomes Will’s abiding rationale: not only is he unhappy with his own lot, but he’s also insistent that he not be an anchor for the girl he comes to love. He decides for her, that setting her free to travel without him — though he can, actually, travel, what with the apparently inexhaustible funds in his family — is the most noble thing he might do, in the name of love. Lou doesn’t see it this way, but it’s not her decision, is it?
This question of who decides raises another issue for Thea Sharrock’s film, adapted by Moyes, which makes various decisions about where and how to change its source story in the transition to screen. What remains the same are Lou’s options, the world built around her so she must respond, the trajectory she’s granted, and most especially, the options for you, as you watch her respond.
These are delivered as clichés, too, primary among them, you will “bawl your eyes out”. This is a generic tic offered as a consumer item. You select this experience, anticipate, bring tissues with you to the theater (or wherever else you consume). Your options within that option, however, are trickier. While Moyes has suggested that the title of both novel and film, Me Before You, is “deliberately opaque“, meaning that it refers to how Lou and Wil imagine themselves before they meet each other, it also works another way, in that “before” is not a matter of time, but a matter of precedence, whose needs or desires come first. Either formulation makes for multiple dilemmas, so you might sort through where you might see yourself or judge your protagonists.
This question of who comes “before” is likely unanswerable. In another movie, that might be a grand, provocative notion in itself, that lack of resolution. But this movie does answer it, makes clear whose before matters more and whose desires and decisions take precedence. That’s not so provocative. That’s prosaic.