Something like a sober, somber, de-fantasized take on Beauty and the Beast, Thea Sharrock’s Me Before You sees a smart, quirky country girl from a humble family fall in love with a damaged upper-cruster who’s grown cold and cruel in the wake of a life-altering fall from grace. Stars Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games series) are a magnificent onscreen couple, but some glaring fumbles in storytelling and overall presentation dampen the impact of the actors’ best efforts, stopping the movie a mile short of Notebook tearjerker greatness.
The film is based on a popular book by Jojo Moyes, who here adapts her own work, taking it from the bookshelf to the multiplex. While the big screen version likely won’t move audiences the way the book does (I haven’t read it, but its reputation speaks for itself), the premise is still a winner. Louisa “Lou” Clark (Clarke) is an aggressively perky ball of sunshine contracted for six months to be a caretaker to recently paralyzed Will Traynor (Claflin), scion of the filthy-rich Traynor family (they’re so rich, they own the picturesque castle that sits majestically at the center of their quaint English town). Will’s austere mother (Janet McTeer) and father (Charles Dance) have spared no expense in outfitting their son’s pristine living quarters with everything he needs. He’s even got a strapping nurse feeding and medicating him, which naturally causes Lou to question what, exactly, her job is meant to entail.
Lou’s devastated to learn that she’s been brought in as a sort of pick-me-up, a final play by Will’s parents to convince him not to go through with an unthinkable decision he’s made–to end it all in a facility in Switzerland that provides such a service to ailing candidates. His days are filled with chronic pain and regret that he’ll never return to his former life, which was full of water skiing, sky diving and all manner of extreme sports adventuring (with some big-time entrepreneurship on the side).
Being tasked with changing Will’s mind is a curious position for Lou to be in to say the least, though she ultimately decides to devote her life to saving his. Will’s at first an impenetrable boor who bullies Lou at every turn, beseeching her to just leave him alone and stop talking. It’s not long, though, before her peculiar charm and frazzled sense of style (she wears pigtails and un-matching, outdated clothes unironically) win him over. In an effort to show him how life can be as a quadriplegic person, she takes him on trips to the race track, to the symphony, and even on a beach getaway that lands her in hot water with her fitness-obsessed worm of a boyfriend (Matthew Lewis). Lou’s grand, romantic excursions seem to be doing the trick (Will goes gaga for her when he sees her in a ravishing red number), though Will’s decision still hangs over them like the sword of Damocles.
It’s always a tricky endeavor making an actress as beautiful as Clarke convincingly kooky or unattractive, but the character’s fleshed out quite well by Moyes and the GoT star has got more than enough talent to navigate the various comedic and dramatic beats the script presents. She’s a charmer, and the fact that a character as insanely bubbly as Lou doesn’t ever approach cartoony territory throughout the film is impressive, especially when you’ve got a character like Will mocking her exuberance seemingly at all times. Claflin’s a perfect foil, his broody, snobbish presence a nice counterbalance to Clarke’s screwball energy. It’s all in the eyes for him–the role is completely immobile aside from his face, obviously, and he and Clarke have a crackling chemistry when they lock eyes, which, for a story like this, is crucial.
Why, then, does the film not work? A lot of it has to do with the third act, in which the dramatic culmination of the story is tragically flubbed. It’s a scene on the beach between the leads in which the characters’ deepest desires are laid out on the table…and don’t make much sense at all. It’s partly the dialogue–Will and Lou just can’t seem to articulate clearly exactly how they feel, which is frustrating. But perhaps the biggest letdown is the visual presentation of their grand tête-a-tête, which is so rudimentary and cinematically uninteresting (cut to him, cut to her, he’s talking, so cut to him) that it in no way reflects the magnitude of what they’re talking about. The rest of the movie sort of hinges on this scene, and the fact that it’s so shoddily constructed brings down the rest of the affair.
There are some complex, controversial themes at play in Me Before You that aren’t explored thoroughly or artistically enough, which is a shame considering how unique and potentially groundbreaking the film could have been. Euthanasia and suicide as an ethically viable choice are serious topics that require deeper consideration than Sharrock and Moyes provide onscreen. Followers of the leading actors’ careers will nevertheless find much to enjoy in the movie’s early scenes, which sing when focused on their natural charisma and chemistry.
Clarke and Claflin shine in this mostly enjoyable tearjerker, though the filmmakers leave many of the story's most interesting themes and ideas largely unexplored.