A more cynical person would describe Me Before You as a movie in which a woman is paid to spend time with a man, and eventually they develop feelings for each other, but romance doesn’t trump selfishness. That’s kind of a dark way to look at it, but Me Before You is such a vanilla movie, which such little genuine emotional impact, that you’re almost forced into considering different ways of looking at the film.
Otherwise, Me Before You will just dissolve into the recesses of your brain, only to reappear whenever you see Emilia Clarke do something crazy with her eyebrows on Game of Thrones or when Sam Claflin flashes his disgustingly attractive smile in a Hunger Games prequel or something. It’s not that Me Before You is bad, but it’s such a product of our modern idea of romance—shaped by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Fifty Shades of Grey, with the presentation of male dominance as heartwarming affection—that it’s almost exhausting to watch.
The film focuses on the relationship between Will Traynor (Claflin) and Lou Clark (Clarke), which begins as a working arrangement. After Will—once gorgeous, athletic, and super-successful—is paralyzed due to a traffic accident, he recedes from the world, spending two years holed up in his family’s palatial estate. (They literally own a castle, so.) Desperate to find someone who lifts their son’s spirits, Will’s parents hire Lou to be his companion.
She’s a little bit of a mess—showing up to the interview in a miniskirt that promptly tears, totally unaware of Will’s quadriplegic status, and thoroughly useless at anything but making a cup of tea—but she captures Will’s parents’ attention. It’s not easy going at first, not with Will refusing to speak to Lou, but when he learns she’s never seen a movie with subtitles—because she’s such an uncouth working-class rube, duhhh—he suddenly develops an interest in helping her “widen your horizons.”
So he teaches her about pesto sauce, which she calls “green gravy.” He teaches her about horse-racing. He teaches her about Paris, and about classical music, and about his family history (they do, in fact, visit the castle that separates his estate from her working-class side of town), and he learns about her interest in fashion and why she didn’t attend college. On her end, she learns more about his spinal cord injury, about his up-and-down health, and about the accident that caused his paralysis.
As they become friends, Will’s parents are pleased (is she teaching him to live?), but Lou’s boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) is unnerved. What are Will and Lou, really? And what does their relationship mean for both of their futures?
It’s hard to fault either Clarke or Claflin for the frustrating elements of Me Before You, because they’re so goddamn likable and charming. In her parade of ridiculous outfits (did the British shoe brand Irregular Choice provide all of Lou’s footwear?), Clarke is an adorable sight, and her smile overwhelms her whole face. It’s immediately obvious why her cheeriness would be infectious. And Claflin, who captured so many hearts as the disgustingly handsome, witty Finnick in The Hunger Games series, is gorgeous here, too. All the teenage girls in the row next to me couldn’t get enough!
But their solid performances don’t balance out the problematic parts of Me Before You, which are many. The uneven power dynamic in Will and Lou’s relationship, in which the wealthy, sophisticated man is teaching the blue-collar, naïve girl all about life. She doesn’t know anything until she meets him, of course, and she only wants more from her life thanks to his influence. The idea that Will’s life now isn’t worth continuing, even though he has people who love and support him. And the assumption that we, as viewers, will understand that Lou is being given a better life when—spoiler alert!—Will pushes her away.
You’ve seen all these elements before, in all of Sparks’s happy-white-Southerners novels and film adaptations, and in Fifty Shades of Grey, in which money and submission equal happiness, and in countless other tales of modern-day romance. Those kinds of fantasies are what Me Before You is trying to emulate, and they’re just as reductive and sexist here as they were there.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs