Few genres have built-in audiences like romantic movies do.
I could write an essay on how Me Before You is the most horrifyingly awful piece of trash to poison the art of filmmaking since The Room (it’s not); I could write a scientific proof on how viewing the movie will leave you blind and deaf for the rest of your life (it won’t). No matter what I say about the latest romantic tearjerker, every human being that has been planning to see it will undoubtedly do so.
It is with pleasure then, that I can declare Me Before You is actually a decently good film. It’s certainly better than many other films in the genre — and miles better than any of the schlock Nicholas Sparks helps shove into theaters for an even less discerning built-in audience.
Me Before You is tacky, but not offensively so. The stellar lead performances are enthusiastic enough to distract from a mishandling of serious themes. Will criticism of the movie stop its audience from attending? No. Will praise change the minds of anyone unconvinced? Maybe. It’s not a great film, but as far as the mainstream romantic genre goes, this one’s at least worth your time.
The movie is based on Jojo Moyes’ book of the same. The book’s author returns to pen the film’s screenplay, which is usually good news for those hoping for a faithful adaptation. I haven’t read the book, but I have read its plot summary on Wikipedia, and I think it’s safe to say that the movie hits all the necessary narrative marks. The director is Thea Sharrock, a Londoner who was at one time the youngest working director in British theater. Her theater background is impressive: she directed As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe (otherwise known as my favorite place in the world) at only 33. Me Before You is, however, her first stab at cinema.
And it shows. The hallmarks of a talented theater director carry over: a nuanced understanding of setting, tight focus on character interaction, and pacing deliberate enough to stave off boredom entirely. Concerning creative aspects that belong exclusively to film, she falters. Most noticeably, she seems to have no hold on whatever the cinematographer is doing. Directors and cinematographers are supposed to have one of the closest working relationships on a film set, but Sharrock is content to let the camera wander. There’s a distracting amount of reaction shots: we see more faces listening to dialogue than we do faces delivering it, which wouldn’t be a huge problem if they weren’t so—
Wait, you’re here to know about the romance. What does filmmaking technique matter to you?
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin hoist Me Before You head and shoulders above any romantic competition. Yes, they’re both brilliant in their roles: but what’s more important is that they’re brilliant together. Clarke’s openhearted optimism as Louisa is addicting, Claflin’s development from resignation to disability to acceptance of love is authentic; together they create chemistry that drives the whole thing. At the risk of sounding like the kind of book Me Before You is based on: they sparkle together.
As lovely as they are, they can’t stop the film’s faulty pop sensibility. I don’t just mean musically, though that is a problem: the soundtrack sounds like it was perennially shifted around to feature the most popular songs of the present moment. Sometimes songs just don’t fit; sometimes they accidentally feature lines like “we’ll learn to walk again.” A bit insensitive for a movie featuring a permanently disabled man in a wheelchair, isn’t it?
No, the pop of Me Before You comes off as an insult to the somber themes the story toys with. It takes a steady, experienced hand to tell stories about debilitating health conditions, serious depression, and especially the possibility of assisted suicide. The film’s screenplay tosses these harsh realities around like other romantic movies toss around breakups and kisses in the rain. It feels a tad offensive, especially when these themes culminate in a tone-deaf ending.
Otherwise, if what you’re coming to see is a realistic and charming romance between Louisa Clark and Will Traynor, you’ll be rewarded with a pair of great performances. If you do prefer a bit of dramatic heft to your romance, you might be a little perturbed.
★★★ (3 out of 5)