In movie weepies, from last century’s Love Story to the millennial likes of The Fault in Our Stars and anything by Nicholas Sparks, death is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Just get a load of Me Before You. I watched the film version of Jojo Moyes’ 2012 bestseller surrounded by women who laughed through their tears and vice versa. The few dudes in attendance sat stoically, resigned to their fate or maybe holding back their feelings. Surprise: Me Before You isn’t an unduly painful endurance test.
For that, thank the two captivating actors cast as the doomed lovers. Emilia Clarke is best known as the blond, dragon-taming Khaleesi on Game of Thrones. But here she plays brunette, plain-Jane Louisa “Lou” Clark, from a rowdy, working-class British family. Lou becomes the caretaker for blue-blood quadriplegic Will Traynor, played with winning charm by Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games franchise. Will is an impossibly handsome London financier who was paralyzed two years ago when a motorcycle accident ended a lifestyle that would have qualified him for the best season ever of The Bachelor. His wealthy family owns the British castle right over the hill from Lou’s humble abode.
Chatty, dimpled Lou, whose wardrobe of Minnie Mouse stripes and polka dots would send fashionistas into a shock coma, is improbably hired by Will’s mum (Janet McTeer, restrained and remarkable) to distract her son from offing himself at an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland. Not since Julia Roberts tried to smile Campbell Scott back to life in 1991’s dismal Dying Young has an actress had to grin like a maniacal cartoon character in the face of the Grim Reaper. Yet, Clarke pulls it off, exuding natural warmth and humor in a part constructed from artificial sweeteners.
OK, she could have twinkled less. But the actress is genuinely endearing, as is the admirably dry-eyed and acid-tongued Claflin. He teaches Lou about Mozart and subtitled movies and admits to a weakness for Michael Bay’s Armageddon (he lost me there). Will thinks Lou’s clothes are ridiculous but falls — as he must — for the real her. A few moments allow both actors to register strongly. I’m thinking of a scene in which Will whirls Lou around a dance floor in his wheelchair. Peering at her neckline, he says, “you wouldn’t let me near those breasts if I wasn’t in this chair.” The two share a few PG-13 kisses as Lou tries to show Will the possibilities in choosing life. But the movie keeps averting its eyes when things get uncomfortable about the tangle of sex and frustration. Like the book by Moyes, who wrote the script, the film glosses over suffering with beauty. The messier duties of caring for Will are handled by male nurse Nathan (Stephen Peacocke), also a looker. Everyone is gorgeous and impossible not to love.
If I seem taken aback by what is really no more than typical Hollywood twaddle, it’s because Me Before You is the feature film debut of Thea Sharrock, a leading light in the British theater and the last person you’d expect to go mucking around in paint-by-numbers tearjerking. A leading U.S. Disability Organization has criticized the film for implying that the millions of people with significant disabilities currently leading fulfilling, rich lives might be better off committing suicide. I don’t think Me Before You does that. But it also doesn’t grapple deeply enough with the core questions it raises, settling for telling a sob story that will go down easy at the box office. Still, you can’t blame audiences too much for being seduced by two shining young stars in a movie romance that hits the spot, bitter and sweet.