by Adam Riske
Movies can be a peculiar beast. I recently attended the Chicago Critics Film Festival and have one minor gripe. When you walked out of the theater, the organizers handed you a ballot where you mark 1-5 depending on how much you liked the movie you just saw. I don’t like that very much and those feelings have just been amplified for me as of late. I don’t think it’s fair to judge or critique a movie based solely on your gut reaction or immediate impression. There were many times during the festival where I wanted to go back and re-do my ratings of the films I saw. In the ensuing hours or maybe even days, I liked some more and some less. Just my opinion, but I think you need to take at least 12 hours and think about a movie before giving your impression about it. It makes for better criticism. Art is complicated and should be treated with more contemplation.
I have a suspicion, though I have nothing to back it up, that Me Before You was greenlit based on the success of a similar (in some ways) romance from 2014 called The Fault in Our Stars, which was a movie I like quite a bit. More importantly for the studio and filmmakers, it proved that there was an audience for a movie about a possibly doomed romance. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both films have the opening day slot of the first weekend of June. I just need one more example to prove my point. Watch this release date in 2017 and 2018 is all I’m saying. Much like how the first weekend of May has become the launch point for the summer movie season, the first weekend of June may soon become the summer weepie slot.
I bring this up because I think the marketing for this movie is very smart, albeit calculated and more than a little dishonest. Warner Bros. is positioning Me Before You as a “love conquers all” narrative between a young woman named Louisa (Emilia Clarke), who is hired to be a companion/caregiver for a man named Will (Sam Claflin), who is paralyzed from the neck down. The two begin their relationship not liking one another very much but over time (as expected) form a connection and even a romance. How a non-paralyzed woman can navigate a relationship (consisting of daily routines, etc.) with a paralyzed man is more than enough drama to sustain a two hour movie in my eyes. But what the studio barely hints at in the marketing is that the story has a sucker punch in store, taking the movie from a romantic drama to a message movie. Even if that’s unintended and the film primarily wants to be a romance, the themes it incorporates are so loaded in controversy and raw emotion that it has to be a message movie. This is where things get complicated for me in assessing Me Before You. As a statement on a delicate issue, I think the film is somewhat cruel, offensive and harmful to those who have similar disablements. It presents them as a burden and not as human beings who just happen to be in need of caregiving and the use of a wheelchair. But as a character study, taking away the issue at large and only considering it as the depiction of one individual’s choice, it is pretty well done. This movie is like a rap song that sounds great but you cringe when you hear how ugly its lyrics are.
The movie seems so mean (for lack of a better word) primarily because the duress is pointed at a character that is played by the luminous Emilia Clarke. Louisa is put into a situation that no temp worker should ever have to be in from the outset (at least emotionally), and Will’s treatment of her is manipulative and controlling in many ways emotionally and, let’s not forget, financially. It’s a weird move that Will also happens to be super rich and that character aspect puts Me Before You in some icky Fifty Shades of Grey territory. I don’t know if the author (who is also the screenwriter of the film) is aware of the emotional residue she is leaving at the foot of her lead female character. Shit happens in the six months during which this movie takes place that would potentially ruin a person (primarily their optimism) for life. But I want to get back to Emilia Clarke specifically and not her character. This is an irresistible performance. I only have history with her from Terminator: Genisys so it wasn’t until now that I “get it” with her. She is so warm, likable and interesting in this movie that it makes me want to watch every season of Game of Thrones (which I’ve never seen) immediately. I could tell she was great in this movie just based on the trailer. It’s one of those performances that announces a movie star.