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Emilia Clarke shines in polarizing 'Me Before You'

Posted June 5

Sam Claflin as Will Traynor and Emilia Clarke as Lou Clark in the romantic drama "Me Before You." (Deseret Photo)

“ME BEFORE YOU” — 2½ stars — Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Samantha Spiro, Brendan Coyle; PG-13 (thematic elements and some suggestive material); in general release

Partway through “Me Before You,” a young woman named Louisa gushes after watching her first foreign language movie, confessing that even though she disagreed with the decisions made by the lead characters, she still loved the film.

The moment is foreshadowing for her character, and more importantly, for “Me Before You’s” audience. The decisions the characters in “Me Before You” make effectively turn the film from a charming drive in the British countryside into a head-on collision with Stonehenge. It’s certainly provocative, but “Me Before You” is bound to leave a lot of moviegoers disappointed.

“Me Before You” is a love story about a unique and unlikely pair. Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke) is a colorful young woman in a remote British village who needs a job. Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is a wealthy quadriplegic in the same village who needs an assistant. It’s a remarkably similar setup to Rob Burnett’s “The Fundamentals of Caring,” which was also based on a book and was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

But where “Fundamentals of Caring” went for a comic big brother-little brother road trip angle, “Me Before You” is designed to be a tearjerker, albeit with some sharp wit and charm.

Lou is a portrait of awkward, groping energy, slapping on a smile in moments of panic to mask the confusion in her eyes. She loves eccentric clothes and had aspirations of going into fashion professionally. But the tough economy has kept her tied to her struggling family, and she’s equally yoked to her oblivious boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis), who treats Lou as a glorified cheerleader to his ridiculous fitness obsession.

Up until the motorcycle accident that paralyzed him, Will was a work hard, play hard up-and-comer who was destined for greatness. So it’s understandable that when Lou meets her new client, two years into a virtual house arrest, he is bitter, sarcastic and dismissive. He had a relationship of his own as well, but since the accident, she has moved on to his best friend.

It’s fairly obvious where things are going, so you might assume “Me Before You” is more about enjoying the discovery of its characters and learning to love life’s genuine beauties. But Lou’s own process of discovery leads her to uncover a secret about Will which, depending on your position on certain social issues, will completely shape your feeling about the film.

“Me Before You” is based on a book (author Jojo Moyes also wrote the film’s screenplay), so those who have read it will be well aware of what is coming. But unsuspecting viewers will be polarized by an ending that clearly wants to make a statement, even if that statement feels conflicted in light of the film’s own promotional catch phrases.

Any controversy over subject matter might have been dismissed if it weren’t for “Me Before You’s” many strengths, including Clarke’s total perfection as Lou. Romantic comedies have been trotting out awkward-yet-cute leading ladies for decades, yet it’s difficult to come up with an actress who manages to embrace her role in such a genuine fashion.

Combined with some charming British wit and skillful execution, “Me Before You” will have you cheering for its leads. The press screening for “Me Before You” offered guests their own custom-branded boxes of Kleenex, and there were enough audible sniffles at the final credits to suggest they came in handy for many. Just what provoked the tears is a more personal question.

“Me Before You” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some suggestive material; running time: 110 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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