Friendship is almost as complicated and compelling as love. It’s romance without the sex, whether between members of the same or opposite genders, and like its more celebrated cousin it has the power both to nourish and destroy.
Me Without You covers 28 years in the lives of London school pals and next-door neighbors Holly and Marina, starting in 1973 when they are ten-year-old Ya-Ya’s pledging eternal sisterhood until they are middle-aged mothers with daughters of their own. From the beginning, Marina (Anna Popplewell as Young Marina and Anna Friel as the teenaged and adult incarnation) is the pretty one; vivacious, fashionable, and seemingly confident. Holly (Ella Jones as a child, Michelle Williams as a teenager and adult) is the intellectual one; shy, studious, and a bit dowdy.
Neither girl has a storybook home life. Marina’s Swinging ’60s dad, already living apart from the family, cats about, while her boozy mother alternates between maternal warmth and drunken abuse. Holly’s overprotective mother flies into a jealous rage whenever her husband pays attention to their only child. And she never tires of reminding her daughter that while she may be clever, her best friend Marina is the sexy, pretty one.
The girls remain best friends despite increasingly divergent lifestyles that become especially pronounced in college, when Marina indulges in hardcore drugs and casual sex while Holly concentrates on her studies and becomes politically active. Although clearly growing apart, the young women seem unwilling to cut one another loose. Holly keeps only one secret from her friend — that she has a crush on Marina’s older brother Nat (Cameron Powrie as young Nat, with Oliver Milburn taking over as an older teenager). What Holly doesn’t realize is that the selfish, manipulative Marina already knows, and has jealously sabotaged the budding romance at every turn.
While Me Without You proves intermittently involving, it falls short in several key areas. Although the girls — Marina in particular — are heavily involved in the music, fashion, and drug scene of the punked-out 1980s, the film has little feel for England or the world outside the girls’ very insular life (although other characters do appear, including Kyle Maclachlan as a college teacher who comes between the two friends). Obviously, Holly and Marina reflect larger societal currents — being either in tune with or rebelling against them — but that picture of the outside world is never drawn. We don’t even get a feel for their circle of friends. In an earlier film, 1998’s The Governess, director Sandra Goldbacher managed to create a viable sense of time and place, even though most of the movie centered on a small group of people at a country estate far removed from the rest of civilization.
Goldbacher does, however, elicit convincing performances from her actors. Friel, a British actress not well known on this side of the Atlantic, does a fine job suggesting the self-absorption and desperate energy that propels Marina. Confident and charismatic on the outside, she is needy and insecure on the inside. Her very real affection for Holly is mixed with the kind of jealous hatred and sense of superiority that only a person lacking self-esteem can project. In the less flamboyant role of Holly, Michelle Williams also does a credible job. Best known for her stint on TV’s hit series Dawson’s Creek, Williams here sports an understated but totally believable English accent — far less showy than Renee Zellweger’s in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Unlike many young TV stars, who happily cater to the expectations of their bread-and-butter teen fans, Williams continually seeks out risky, challenging film roles. While her performance here doesn’t match her outstanding work in HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk II, the fault seems to lie more with the script than with the actress.
Cowritten by Goldbacher and Laurence Coriat, the screenplay fails to generate any real sympathy for Holly or Marina once they have passed adolescence. Although the girls’ relationship is out of balance from the beginning, it undergoes a subtle but profound shift when Marina’s growing dependency and possessiveness begin to prove an unacceptably heavy burden for Holly. For the film to work, the audience must maintain a strong, even if conflicted, feeling of empathy for both characters throughout the film. The damage to their friendship should strike viewers deeply. As it is, we feel more a sense of boredom than tragedy about both of them.
To its credit, though, the film is quite good at suggesting the intensity of feeling that can unite two people — an intensity that can be both nurturing and destructive, depending upon the individuals involved. Like lovers, Holly and Marina argue and disagree, but can’t seem to wean themselves from one another. We should feel a similar attachment to the characters, or, failing that, at least feel more involved in their plight.