Some people just like to cry at the movies. If you are one of those people — if you have for example actually committed to watching The Fault in Our Stars or The Notebook more than once, either endeavor an act of incomprehensible madness — then chances are you will enjoy Me Before You. And you will undoubtedly get a bit teary.
Me Before You has been adapted for the screen by Jojo Moyes (One Plus One, The Girl You Left Behind and Me Before You’s sequel After You) from her bestselling novel, and so the screenplay is faithful to the source material, with necessary omissions. Love stories are Moyes’ milieu, but this one comes with a bite. Despite the amusing bits (and there are many), despite the budding ardor (predictable and crowd-pleasing), despite the rarely seen and irresistible smile of Emilia Clarke (who is not allowed moments of levity as the formidable Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, on Game of Thrones), Me Before You is a juicy, ripe red apple of a romance with a razor blade embedded under its skin.
Clarke plays the good-hearted but unambitious Louisa Clark, who lives at home in an English village with her family and helps her working-class parents with the rent. When Lou loses her job at a bakery that’s closing, she applies for a well-paying post as a companion to wealthy, handsome and bitter quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, the charismatic Finnick Odair of The Hunger Games). Lou does not know how to take care of a quadriplegic but learns quickly she’s not expected to: There’s a nurse for that. Will’s tense mother (Janet McTeer) stresses two things: That Lou is there to keep the once-active Will company and to never, ever leave him alone for more than a few minutes.
First, naturally, there’s distrust on his part and frustration on hers. The movie places less emphasis on the daunting class barrier separating them, though it underscores their differences (when Will tells Lou, “You need to broaden your horizons,” he doesn’t seem to realize that traveling the world or even to London takes money, and Lou doesn’t have it). Gradually, though, they do what people tend to do when they’re thrown together for long periods of time: they soften toward each other. Then Lou discovers Will’s real plan — he is determined to commit legal suicide in Sweden. What else can she do but vow to show him a life with her is worth living no matter the constraints?
Clarke, who’s almost unrecognizable here, is a large part of what makes the film as engaging as it is; seeing her as the sartorially adventurous Lou, wearing spotted pumps, a fuzzy orange sweater and a wide grin, is startling and weirdly mesmerizing. Claflin is an appealing leading man, and the rest of the cast is a Who’s Who of Popular British Actors, including Brendon Coyle (Mr. Bates of Downton Abbey) as Lou’s out-of-work but genial dad; Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as Will’s father, whose caddish instincts have been excised; and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter’s heroic Neville Longbottom) as Lou’s boyfriend Patrick, who prefers prepping for a triathlon to date night.
Me Before You has already incited a few complaints about its portrayal of quadriplegics and its glossing over of the acrimonious subject of state-assisted suicide. The film never examines that debate fully and in the interest of time has cut Moyes’ side plot in which Lou investigates and gets to know the active, supportive disabled community. But Me Before You is a sugar-coated romantic bauble, not a gritty documentary. Giving into its pleasures is not for everyone, but its message — live boldly, as the movie’s hashtag encourages — is an admonition that’s awfully hard to argue.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Charles Dance, Janet McTeer, Matthew Lewis, Brendan Coyle.
Director: Thea Sharrock.
Screenwriter: Jojo Moyes, adapted from her novel.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 110 minutes. Thematic elements, some suggestive material. Playing at area theaters.