ME BEFORE YOU, UK, 2016. Starring Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Brendan Coyle, Samantha Spiro, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis. Directed by Thea Sharrock. 110 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes, sexual references and coarse language).
One might say that this is a pleasingly emotional film. interestingly, some more cerebral reviewers have been harsh on the film, especially being critical of the presentation of disability. The many readers of the novel and the higher than expected success of the film, on the other hand, suggests that these reviewers were not responding to the characters, the situations and the emotions but to ideas about treatment of themes. The screenplay was written by the novelist, Jojo Moyes.
Already the title indicates that there will be interactions between two people, the me and the you. But it depends on whom we identify as the me and whom we identify as the you. One is Lou, Louisa, a cheerful young woman in her mid-20s who eventually takes a job of day-carer for Will, and up-and-coming young executive who is injured in a street accident and is now quadriplegic. In terms of the title, it is Lou who puts Will before everyone else. She is played by Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones).
There have been a number of recent novels and films about young people with terminal illness, like The Fault in Our Stars. This time the protagonists are in their mid-20s and early 30s, appealing to a more adult audience. Lou is a charmingly effervescent personality. Will, on the other hand, played by Sam Claflin (who appeared in The Hunger Games films) has become depressed and embittered because of his inability to live now the life of his former self.
We are wary of identifying Will’s psychological profile because he is not able to be his real self – although he contrasts himself with Lou in a discussion about how they handle situations. He says that he sees things, processes this and makes decisions.
Will comes from a very wealthy family, who seem to be owners or custodians of the local ruined castle, quite an imposing presence in the town, and the setting for some of the scenes between Lou and Will. (The final credits acknowledge Pembroke Castle.) With money as no object, this is a kind of modern fairytale, a contemporary Cinderella story.
In many ways the plotline is predictable enough, the gruff patient will mellow because of the attentions of his attractive carer. However, there is a deeper underlying sub-plot, Will dissatisfied with his life and contacting a Dignity Centre in Switzerland with the prospect of assisted suicide. His parents are concerned, allowing him six months to make up his mind, his father being more rational about the situation (Charles Dance in quite a sympathetic role), his mother not wanting him to die (Janet McTeer), and growing appreciative of all the care that Lou takes of her son.
As regards points of view about assisted suicide, the screenplay presents both points of view quite strongly, Will and his previous attempt at killing himself, determined that this is the best action for himself, Lou and her love for him, wanting to stay with him, and, while she goes to him in Switzerland, is prepared to do everything she can so that he will live. Other films which offer comparisons on this theme include The Sea Within, Million Dollar Baby and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
While Will is played (eventually) quite sympathetically by Sam Claflin, it is Lou who makes the strong impression. She is a strong personality who lives in the present, cheerful and described as “chatty” (although that is the last thing that Will wants when she first arrives). Lou has lived a fairly limited life, belongs to a loving family, and is kindness personified. She does say she would have liked to study: fashion. She loves clothes, something different, bright even loud, every day.
When Will shows her the DVD of Of Gods and Men, the first one she has watched with subtitles, she is overwhelmed. Something of an intuitive challenge. While she decides to draw Will out of himself (a visit to the races where she definitely backs the wrong horse and a rapturous attendance with him at a Mozart concert), Will is broadening her horizons, giving her more of a reason to live which makes his final declaration to Lou after she has offered her unconditional love to him even sadder.
Though she is a person who lives in the present, not a decider. But her growing love and care offer a challenge, investigating and making decisions of ways and travels to bring Will out of his cocooned self.
Perhaps the title should have focused on Lou and called the film Me For You.
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.