Me Before You
There are bad tearjerkers and good tearjerkers. There are Nicolas Sparks films and movies like Me Before You. What differentiates the latter from the former is easily recognized but hard to put into words. It's an absence of overt manipulation. It's allowing the humanity of the characters to overcome the necessities of plot. Productions like Me Before You (based on Jojo Moyes' well-loved novel) allow the protagonists to breathe. It lets them become real and, although they eventually must follow the plot's dictates, their progression seems organic. As a result, tears flow more naturally.
If one was to base an opinion of Me Before You on its high-level summary, the movie would sound like the ultimate downer. It's about a paralyzed man, Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who is determined to end his life at the conclusion of a six-month "waiting period" he has promised his parents, Camilla (Janet McTeer) and Steven (Charles Dance). While enduring the last weeks of an existence that has become intolerable, Will is paired with a "companion", the quirky and charming Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke). After an awkward period of adjustment, the two become friendly and the friendship develops into something more. In the end, however, even love cannot shake Will's determination.
Louisa is played by Emilia Clarke, known worldwide for her portrayal of the fierce "Mother of Dragons" and would-be queen of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, in HBO's Game of Thrones. Despite their vast differences in temperament and physical appearance, Clarke is able to imbue both characters with life and personality. Her Louisa is shy and flighty, a "chatty" young woman whose bizarre fashion sense raises eyebrows everywhere. She is instantly likable and her perspective is the perfect portal into this tragic love story. The key to Louisa is that she's sharp, witty, and courageous. She remains so throughout the film - a critical quality when the movie traverses the emotionally rocky territory of its final act.
Clarke's counterpart, Sam Claflin, is no stranger to genre tales - he played Finnick in three of the four Hunger Games movies and William (Snow White's prince) in the two Huntsman films. Handsome and brooding, Will cuts a dashing figure even in his wheelchair. He's a more complex character than Louisa. His current existence isn't enough. By his own admission, before his accident, he loved life and, as a result, his circumstances are insupportable. We're left to determine whether his solution is selfish or selfless. The movie doesn't address the morality of assisted suicide but puts its personal ramifications under the magnifying scope. Will is never dishonest about his intentions and Me Before You offers a stark reminder that, no matter how powerful love may be, it doesn't necessarily conquer all.
The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable names. Janet McTeer and Charles Dance play Will's parents. Although these characters initially seem cut from the whole cloth of upper class stereotypes, we soon recognize there's more to them than we initially suppose. A short scene in which they discuss their divergent views of Will's decision illustrates this. Matthew Lewis provides some comic relief as Louisa's self-centered, fitness nut boyfriend. Stephen Peacocke is Will's nurse and Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who's Clara Oswald) is Louisa's prettier, more driven sister.
Director Thea Sharrock (making her feature debut), working from Moyes' screenplay, avoids a plethora of landmines. For at least its first two-thirds, Me Before You maintains an upbeat tone. Will and Louisa's interactions are predominantly lighthearted and the serious moments are never maudlin. Next to the performances, the movie's strength is its emotional honesty. It's easy to mess up a story like this, trying too hard to make the characters likable and to wring tears from the viewers' eyes. Sharrock achieves both aims with a deftness of touch.
I am by nature a cynic and am easily turned off by manufactured sentiment. I dislike Terms of Endearment intensely. That I was fully immersed in this world and invested in the characters' lives is a testament to the movie's strength. It's not perfect - there are times when the pacing is off and the epilogue tries too hard to end things on a positive note - but it's effective and affecting. Fans of the genre will be pleased, and everyone is advised to bring a package of Kleenexes to the theater. You'll need them.
© 2016 James Berardinelli