Film Review: Me Before You (USA, 2016)

Even at just a surface level, Me Before You feels like a movie that’s just ticking boxes than it is engaging heartstrings. You’ve got three big franchise stars (from Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and The Hunger Games, respectively), a picturesque British backdrop and premise that all-but-guarantees a tragic end. However, it never really feels like the film is genuinely leveraging these assets – just exploiting them.

Sure, any film can written off as emotionally manipulative but there’s a lot of convenience to the plot of Me Before You that undercuts its attempts to be genuine.  Try as the film might, it’s hard to the shake that feeling that the game is rigged from the start.

Based on the book of the same name, the setup here is fairly straightforward. 26-year old Lou (Emilia Clarke) applies for a job as a care assistant for the crippled Will (Sam Claflin), only for the two to fall for once another. It all comes together pretty much exactly as you expect it to.

Though the writing is occasionally a little obnoxious, it can’t be said that Clarke isn’t trying to make the material work. When the going gets tough those eyebrows go into overdrive to make up the absence of internal dialogue lost in the adaptation process.

Smartly, the film spends a lot of time fleshing out Lou’s relationships beyond Will. Her sister, family and boyfriend all serve as their own subplots and help her feel more well-rounded as a character.

However much effort she puts in, Clarke’s performance can’t fix the absence of chemistry with co-star Claflin. He’s occasionally possessed of some kind of witty spark but for the most part he’s dry and uninteresting to watch on screen. He’s often painted as just bitter enough to be charming – which is something, I guess. His performance is in some ways saved by the film’s supporting cast. Charles Dance and Janet McTeer do great as Will’s parents while Matthew Lewis provides some unexpectedly funny moments as boyfriend Patrick.

 In fact, the film as a whole would almost be more compelling if it was a story of friendship rather than romance between her and Will. The story of him helping her overcome her insecurities and embrace her potential to do something is much more interesting than that of the relationship between the two.

While the cinematography in the film has a crisp appeal,Thea Sharrock‘s direction often feels far too mechanical for its own good. Shots drag on and on and we spend way too much time watching Lou react to things. It all comes across as heavy-handed and manufactured. The copious amount of product placement in the film doesn’t help.

Nor do the film’s attempts to address on more serious topics. It’s hard to take anyone in Me Before You seriously when they start spouting off cliched lines and platitudes about the grey-morality of euthanasia. The film never manages to form a coherent statement about such things beyond “it’s bad and complicated”.

In addition, Lou’s situation as a care assistant feels too idyllic to get worked up over. Will’s family is absurdly rich and can afford any plot detour the script wishes to take and Will’s physiotherapist (Stephen Peacocke) handles pretty much all the heavy and undignified parts of his care. It feels like the movie is willing to milk the sympathy its premise affords but not follow through and actually depict that what tragic situation is like in reality. Again, it feels exploitative.

Me Before You isn’t really a bad film, but it is one that struggles to gain any emotional momentum. It fails to sell its central romance and the whole affair reeks of artifice. Some might be satisfied with that but let’s face it, Emilia Clarke can do better.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Me Before You is out in cinemas across Australia today.