A bubbly, broody love triangle in which death is the third party, Me Before You stars Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke as the caregiver of a quadriplegic, portrayed by The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin. Brought together by need — hers for a job, his for a friend — they’re chalk and cheese, and therefore, by the rules of the movie-romance game, meant for each other. There’s no question that Jojo Moyes’ adaptation of her popular novel, directed by Thea Sharrock, has more on its mind than such storytelling conventions. But far too much of this high-gloss tearjerker proceeds as a by-the-numbers romantic fantasy, nudging the viewer every step of the way.
The chemistry between the leads and a few finely etched supporting turns provide welcome counterweight to the movie’s formulaic progression, welcome especially for those who have seen their fair share of entries in the love-story-with-medical-complication subgenre. Those who haven’t — teens and young adults — will most appreciate the feature, but all-ages fans of the book and of cryfests like The Fault in Our Stars (whose screenwriters had at one point been tapped for the adaptation) will be eagerly getting out their handkerchiefs.
At the big-screen helm for the first time, stage wunderkind Sharrock takes a straightforward approach, relying on such familiar tools of the trade as the pop-song-backed montage and ping-pong cross-cutting in conversations. She reserves the film’s visual flourishes for its design elements and settings, and the drama opens with one of its most striking images: two lovers in a bed so white and fluffy it might be a cloud, or a romance novel cover. Dashing go-getter Will Traynor (Claflin), waking in his London dream pad beside his girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby), is starting another glamorous day.
The opening section sets up the yin-yang between thirtysomething Will and 26-year-old Louisa “Lou” Clark (Clarke) with admirable economy. In contrast to his moneyed joie de vivre, she still lives in the cramped home of her parents (Brendan Coyle and Samantha Spiro) and, like many women in screen romances, has a boyfriend (Matthew Lewis) who’s cartoonishly wrong for her. Lou’s explosively colorful girlie getups announce her quirky vivacity — costume designer Jill Taylor has a field day with fuzzy sweaters and polka-dot shoes — but any ambitions attached to that creativity have fizzled.
When Lou and Will meet, he’s almost completely paralyzed, two years after an accident cut short his seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory. That Will’s stoically suffering mother (Janet McTeer, powerfully understated) hires the inexperienced Lou in the first place is a testament to either the woman’s desperation or her ability to see beyond a nicely played wardrobe malfunction to Lou’s compassion and resilience. With a physical therapist (Stephen Peacocke) tending to Will’s hygiene, Lou is expected to occupy a different realm of intimacy, as a hired friend of sorts. “You can work out your level of interaction,” his mother tells her. But the movie doesn’t quite allow such leeway for the viewer, instead underlining every exchange and reaction.
In the castle that rises above Lou’s village and is Will’s family home, she becomes an Eliza Doolittle to his princely Henry Higgins. He encourages her to widen her horizons; first step: watching movies with subtitles. The self-actualization goes two ways, with Lou gradually, predictably drawing Will out of the fortress — literal and figurative — where he’s been biding his wheelchair-bound time in sullen despair. Alarmed by the jagged scar on his arm from a botched attempt at self-destruction, Lou determines to make him fall in love with life again and cancel his pending date with assisted suicide in Switzerland.
Cue the string of storybook excursions, both local and far-flung, each one higher on the aphrodisiac meter until the ultimate island getaway (Mallorca plays Mauritius). With their charm and good looks, Clarke and Claflin give the duo’s sublimated sensuality an undeniable charge, enhanced by the honeyed light of Remi Adefarasin’s camerawork. Clark overdoes Lou’s exuberance, though; whatever emotional complexity and uncertainties the character had on the page get lost amid the performance’s insistent effervescence. And however superbly delivered, Lou’s rant about unhappy marriages indicates a level of understanding that’s at odds with her supposed lack of introspection.
Within the extreme physical constraints of his role, Claflin works a subtler palette, giving Will’s mourning for his former self an affecting depth beyond the screenplay’s all too obvious signposts. Both leads embody the class divide that their characters have crossed, with Andrew McAlpine’s polished production design accentuating the difference between the spirited bustle of Lou’s home life and the quiet anguish of the Traynors’ well-appointed rooms.
The pointedness of the dialogue and direction can, when it isn’t detracting from the story, serve the pared-down supporting roles well, heightening smartly restrained performances that convey whole backstories. That’s the case when Lou’s crucifix-wearing mother reacts to the idea of euthanasia, when her father buoys her with encouraging words and especially in the potent silences between Will’s coexisting parents, played to perfection by McTeer and Charles Dance. A cameo by Joanna Lumley, as a stranger spouting agreeably tart words of wisdom, is entirely unnecessary. But it’s nonetheless a gratifying jolt of Lumley-ness as this villainless fairy tale draws toward its happily mawkish ever after.
Distributors: Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Production companies: New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present a Sunswept Entertainment production
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Brendan Coyle, Stephen Peacocke, Matthew Lewis, Jenna Coleman, Samantha Spiro, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Joanna Lumley
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Jojo Moyes, based on her novel
Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Alison Owen
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: John Wilson
Composer: Craig Armstrong
Casting: Kate Dowd
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes