The marketing makes it clear that Me Before You is a tear jerking romance. But what it doesn’t do is hint at the deeply dark premise that lies at its centre – that of a young man rendered quadriplegic in a traffic accident being in so much emotional and physical pain that he simply doesn’t want to live anymore. Quite literally wanting to die. It’s not many romance films which have a debate about euthanasia at their core. It’s a film which has caused consternation from some disabled rights groups concerned that it depicts quadriplegic lives as throwaway.
Emilia Clarke, one of the two stars recently told The Guardian “We were very careful with how we wanted to present things. And we are showing a situation, we are not showing an opinion.” It is actually a debate about the right of a character to end their sense of impotence caused by paralysis and pain while all those around him insist they know better. It is dark, dark stuff for something that you might, not unjustifiably, expect to be quite frothy.
And yes, it is a romance. In less skilled hands this story would be a button pushing saccharine cheese fest, and although the music does have a tendency to over egg the pudding, the story is for the most part very sensitively dealt with. This is down to several factors. Direction is by Thea Sharrock making her feature film debut after a long theatre career. Indeed a theatre career based mostly in small intimate venues where the audience tended to be incredibly close to the actors, and that intimacy works dividends here because this is a film of relationships requiring a director skilled with dealing with the emotional work of actors. The actors are at the centre of the film and mishandled it could have been a very different experience.
What stops the Me Before You from tipping over the edge (at which it teeters ever so slightly) into mawkish melodrama is the brilliant and very classy cast.
Emilia Clarke as Lou is utterly delightful, giving an incredibly charming performance. Funny, emotional and truthful it is a skilful and winning piece of acting, the beating heart and soul of the film. Lou is naive and out of place, but also so wonderfully friendly and open that everyone is won over by her, the audience included. As a viewer in the cinema you can feel the audience around you (in between sniffling) just wanting to give the character a collective hug. Sam Claflin as Will is a great match, and Janet McTeer and Charles do solid supportive work as Will’s parents. Jenna Coleman, Samantha Spiro and Brendan Coyle also come out of things well as Lou’s sister and parents, particularly considering they are providing the slightly batty family life seemingly required of one lead character in romantic movies.
But this is Emilia Clarke’s movie, no question. She is the centre of the story and inhabits the position with ease. It proves her as someone who can grab your heartstrings, make you laugh, and conjure empathy in the most seemingly invisible and natural manner. Her timing is impeccable and Lou exists as a living breathing and charmingly friendly character who you instantly want to do well.
One area, apart from the button pushing music perhaps, where the film is on slightly shakier ground is the slightly old fashioned patrician aspect of the relationship between the two leads.
Lou is down on her luck, and the job as carer for Will comes after being let go from the olde worlde tea shop that she has worked in for many years. Will is the extremely wealthy son of the local landed gentry, who apart from anything else own the local castle. It is, very basically, the story of a prince and a servant girl. The idea that Lou is being “saved” by the kindness of the rich is something that rankles. The contrast between the two family backgrounds is depicted a little too cheerfully to ever ring entirely true and one key moment of genuine friction and drama, when Lou’s father asks Will whether as a banker had anything to do with his employer’s company being asset stripped and him losing a job, is utterly squandered. There’s no suppressed anger. There’s not really even an embarrassed silence as the huge chasm between the two families is underlined. Lou is essentially the beneficiary of Will’s patronage, but it’s because the performances of the two leads are so excellent that you allow any misgivings about the imbalance in the set up of their relationship to pass. And because the performances are so excellent you believe it, and it becomes evermore heartbreaking.
Never before have I sat in a screening surrounded by the sound of so many people crying at the end of a movie. So be warned, this is a weepy – but for all its hoary old premise and set-up, it’s also one which for the most part earns the audience reaction it provokes.
Me Before You opens in cinemas on 3rd June. It might well surprise you.