“ME BEFORE YOU“, the screen adaptation of Jojo Moyes’s best selling novel starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke is so clearly marketed as a romantic weep-fest that the screening swag they handed us going is was a box of Kleenex branded with the poster of their gorgeous faces on it. Does this movie with these two beautiful people deserve to find a willing weeping audience?
Recently disabled Englishman Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) has lost his joie de vivre. So much so that his doting billionaire parents are hiring an emotional cheerleader to brighten his new daily life. Enter Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke of GAME OF THRONES), a completely unprepared, inexperienced 20-something who sees life through technicolor glasses and desperately needs a paycheck. She is obviously going to change Will’s life for the better and bring back his will to live. Or is she? Either way the audience is there to see the sparks fly, and we do, serenaded by a soundtrack of sublime sadness.
Bogged down by sentimentality, and barely touching the surface of the challenges inherent with quadriplegia or the right-to-die movement, all the juice of this romantic drama is to be found in the performances of the leads and co-stars.
Looking at this cast, it’s like “Battle of the Brit-heavy Fandoms”. Clarke, of GAME OF THRONES, and Claflin of THE HUNGER GAMES are joined by Jenna Coleman, of DR. WHO, playing Clarke’s sister. Matthew Lewis, famous from the HARRY POTTER series, plays Clarke’s insufferable boyfriend. The parental figures played by Charles Dance (also of GAME OF THRONES), Janet McTeer (of MALEFICENT), and Brandan Coyle (of DOWNTON ABBEY) are all BBC regulars. Even Joanna Lumley of AbFab makes a cameo. For fans of British film and tv actors, this weep-fest is an all-star smorgasbord, and they all work overtime to create magnetism, pathos, and meaning between characters. That’s what saves ME BEFORE YOU.
As Louisa Clark, Clarke is like a one-woman argument against botox, who has more expression in her eyebrows than most have in all their 43 facial muscles. She has such luminosity that even her pervasive smiles are not off-putting or cloying. They add to her character’s appeal, making believable her turning Claflin’s ultra-rich, ultra-handsome grumpus Will Traynor from unconsolable to smitten in such short order. Clark’s character has quirky, delightful outfits that telegraph her optimistic nature, yet they belie the fact that she has to work for her family to keep food on the table. Are those shoes she’s wearing “Irregular Choice”? If so, each pair carries a price tag fashion-forward viewers will recognize as unattainably hefty.
Claflin has an even tougher job finding a believable arc amidst the fluffy verbal exchanges and a story sorely lacking substantive representation of his hopelessness. As to that, Will being a newly paralyzed man who has absolutely every financial resource, suggests no one with that disability could possibly find their way to a life worth living. Through sheer force of charm alone, Claflin puts the audience into his moneyed and manicured corner, to wish him whatever happiness he and his chipper miss can muster.
It’s not like the history of invalid love stories is rife with lurid details or the minutia about their ailments. 1970’s LOVE STORY, for better or worse one of the best known of the subgenre, barely touches on the leukemia that strikes down the heroine. Of course that movie also got called out for ignoring the specifics of their experience. These challenges, in real life, often enrich and deepen a relationship. If you’re looking for a movie that better represents the struggles around an ailment or disability, the recent “MISS YOU ALREADY, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is a better example.
Skimming over depth in favor of a shining, lovely, yet sad love story isn’t a crime, it’s just a disappointment. Still, those who loved the book, or love seeing beautiful people playing at loving each other, will find sweetness and charm enough to satisfy.