If any genre has taken a definite hit in the 21st century, it’s the light romantic drama. It’s not that the films don’t exist at all, but it’s one form of entertainment for adults that’s been overshadowed by the glut of mammoth franchises that Hollywood loves these days. It certainly doesn’t help that the few films that Hollywood produces in that form these days tend to rely heavily on cliché, to diminishing results. Me Before You is a bit of an odd case; it handles some issues poorly, notably when it comes to the realities of physical disability, but the chemistry between the leads is palpable and charming enough to almost cover for it.
Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke), newly unemployed, gets a bit of good luck when she finds a well-paying job as a caretaker for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a wealthy quadriplegic. Lou is hired by Will’s mother, who is less interested in someone with formal nursing training and more interested in finding someone who can be a good companion for her son, who’s been in a deep depression since his accident two years prior. Will is initially cool to Lou’s adorkable tendencies, but he eventually warms to her charms. When Lou discovers that Will is planning on ending his life through physician-assisted suicide, though, she hatches a plan to make him happy enough to change his mind.
Movies like Me Before You are meant to be comfortable, and in that regard, this one largely succeeds. That’s in no small part due to Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly effective performance. Fans of her turn as Daenerys on Game of Thrones may be surprised that Clarke can play cheery and cute as well as she can play stone-cold killer/motivational speaker. It’s easy to understand why Claflin’s character falls for her, because she’s that disarming.
On the surface, it’s hard to fault Lou’s main drive in the film. She wants to make Will happy so he’ll want to live. It’s a nice sentiment. But it’s also one that, when you move away from the film itself, doesn’t quite work.
The film does little to explain Will’s desire to commit suicide, outside of showing just how active he was in a video shot before he was paralyzed. Characters discuss the fact that he’s ill, or in pain, but largely in vague terms. The actual problems, such as Will waking up screaming in the middle of the night, are told instead of shown. It makes sense as a way to make a pleasant film, but it robs Me Before You of some real potency in showing the very real reasons why some people may consider suicide.
Here’s the thing: the film doesn’t have to endorse suicide by addressing the issue with some seriousness. It also doesn’t have to dismiss it, of course, but the way it’s treated, it seems like endorsement is what the filmmakers wanted to avoid. And yet, the film tries to get that emotional payoff anyway, without the work necessary to make it succeed.
On the surface, at least, Me Before You does have its charms. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser. But by avoiding really delving into the substance of Will’s wishes, it does a large disservice to its audience. That’s not something befitting the Mother of Dragons.