Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Me Before You" Review: Emilia Clarke Shines Brightly In This Mostly Conventional Love Story


Based off the book of the same name, the new romance film Me Before You has arrived to remind us that the summer movie season isn't just about explosions and superheroes but can also be a place to find true love. Firmly establishing the first week of June as the place for your mid-summer tearjerkers (see A Fault in Our Stars from a couple years back being released at the same time), Me Before You is a breath of fresh air after all the Hollywood blockbusters released in the past month or two. But what really stands out in this mostly conventional love story is its star Emilia Clarke who subverts all expectations in a role that she fully throws herself into and steals the show from just about everyone else whenever she is on screen. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital           
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 50 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: June 3, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: Emilia Clarke
Likes: Emotionally manipulative films that earn it
Neutral: Tragic love stories
Hates: Nothing
Daenerys Targaryen meets Tywin Lannister?: Yup, for the first time ever Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance meet on screen.

Those eyebrows...I mean come on...am I right?

We first meet Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) in the bustling city where after rushing off from his girlfriend to his job as a successful banker is involved in a car crash (well, motorcycle crash to more accurate) leaving him crippled from the shoulders down. We jump ahead a couple years where we meet Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), a bubbly presence with a keen eye for fashion or perhaps more of a keen eye for outrageous color schemes and patterns is more like it. Despite having a bright and shiny personality Louisa has had a difficult time finding a job that meets her skill set and after being laid off from the local bakery seeks employment at the Traynor household where she impresses both Mr. and Mrs. Traynor (Charles Dance and Janet McTeer) enough to be hired on as an assistant to their son Will. While it starts out as just a means to a paycheck for Louisa it doesn't take long before glowing nature overtakes the cynical and depressive Will who eventually allows her into his world and into his heart.

Some love stories can feel manufactured and manipulative. What this means is that the writer and filmmakers create characters and place them in scenarios and/or situations that exist solely to evoke a particular reaction from the audience and are not reached organically. Be it a person suffering from an illness whose personality makes them an intolerable mess or two people destined to fall in love with frustratingly obvious obstacles placed in their path to happiness only to be thwarted by often times convenient plotting which in turn allows them to resolve their issues only to end up at the predictable conclusion we saw coming miles away. But every so often we get a film that takes those manufactured conventions and maneuvers through them in such a way that, while still manufactured, doesn't feel as though you are being manipulated but instead feel as though these are decisions made out of circumstance and not by need.

Sam Claflin is outshined by Clarke's radiance but does a sufficient job earning our sympathies.

Me Before You is just such a film that feels both spontaneous and manufactured at the exact same time. The push and pull of Louisa and Will's growing attraction is obvious and we can sense the inevitable conclusion looming on the horizon but their moments, both good and bad feel earned most of the time. Will's state of mind and well being isn't kept a secret from us, we know what he wants and have a good idea on whether or not it will happen and may not agree with it but at least understand it. Louisa's feelings on the matter are obvious and we see that her current boyfriend is a complete tool so it isn't too surprising when we see her gravitate more towards the broken Will over time despite both her and the audience knowing where it is all leading. While having a solid foundation is key to any film it is even more so for the sort of genres that often see very little innovation and Me Before You does little to innovate but succeeds in creating that foundation.

Where it sinks or swims however, as is often the case with these sorts of films is with the casting. The writing can be spot on and the story can be moving but unless you get the casting right it is all for naught. Me Before You not only nails the casting it hits it out of the park for a game winning run with Emilia Clarke in the lead role. While most will know Clarke from her role as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, aside from her casting in last years dismal Terminator Genisys audiences have only ever seen one side of her acting abilities which despite how popular her character is on that HBO show we rarely see much emotion from her. Her role here as the wide-eyed and enthusiastic Louisa feels as though all that restrained emotion has come to a boiling point and just spills over on to the screen. This is unlike anything we have from Clarke before which will pleasantly surprise most of her fans who will be hard pressed to realize it is even the same person at times.

Louisa's fashion sense is a bit peculiar, just like her.

Her bubbly demeanor and impressively emotive facial expressions (those eyebrows are mesmerizing at times) shine through in a film in desperate need of her vibrance. That mixed with the character's penchant for wearing outrageous clothes matched only by their outrageous color schemes provided a beacon of light in a film that narratively speaking was more about suffering and despair than the cliche Hollywood happy ending. To say that Clarke's presence saved the film is a bit harsh though considering all the other wonderful performances surrounding her (Charles Dance and Jenna Coleman are really good here), but there is no doubt that if not for her the film's deliberately darker moments would have been a much harder pill to swallow.

As for Sam Claflin as Will, he unfortunately has the thankless role of the person in need. He does extremely well in the role of a man robbed of the future he worked so hard for and evokes just the right amount of sympathy out of the audience without it ever feeling like pity. But when you put him up against the colorful Emilia Clarke it is difficult to notice the subtle work he is doing and that is a bit of a shame. Every romance/love story hinges on both parties being relatable and the two leads for Me Before You have no problem winning us over despite the fact that we find ourselves drawn more to one than the other.

By the end you want these two to find happiness and they do, but in their own ways.

Me Before You won't go down as a romance classic but it certainly fills a void in a summer of films packed to the brim with violence and cheap thrills. The best thing one can say for the film is that despite its inherent melancholy it will leave audiences uplifted and with a brighter outlook on life. As Will tells Louisa, "Live Bold" and that message is at the heart of what the film ultimately imparts upon its audience. Defying the odds and subverting expectations, Me Before You surprises not so much with its mostly by the numbers love story but with how easily it sucks us in despite its many common conventions.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

If you want a break from all the big blockbusters with a little more down to Earth story telling complemented by a radiant performance by Emilia Clarke, then do yourself a favor and check out Me Before You as it certainly has the right recipe to cure those summer time blues.

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