Me Before You is a polished Hollywood tearjerker, a romantic drama ready to load up the sentimentality necessary to manipulate every last drop from its audience’s eyes. What it doesn’t have is the touch of grit needed to sell its pain. This British romantic drama is smooth and warm, the sort of sturdy, composed, and cautious studio effort that’s a tad too reserved to get the job done, but awfully pleasant as it goes. The movie, adapted by Jojo Moyes from her novel of the same name, is about Lou (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke), a young woman who desperately needs a job to take care of her poor family. Her dad’s out of work and her older sister is a single mother trying to go back to school. They’re in bad financial shape. So it’s a good thing a job placement service gets her connected with a local rich couple (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance) looking for a caretaker for their son, Will (Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin), who was an active young gent before he was paralyzed in an accident two years prior.
Calling it a romantic drama tips its hand. It is a movie where the characters can’t see what the audience can plainly tell. It’s obvious where the whole thing’s headed. The result is just waiting around for the people involved to catch up and realize what genre they’re playing in: the doomed romance with a medical bent, like Love Story and The Fault in Our Stars before it. At first Will, depressed and unhappily resigned to his quadriplegic status, is prickly and unhappy about his latest caretaker. His home health aide (Stephen Peacocke) is to take care of the bathing and changing. It’s Lou’s job to simply keep him company and make sure he gets regular activity and medication. She’s plucky enough and charming enough that eventually, despite his best efforts, he doesn’t mind having her around. The brewing affection between the two of them is inevitable, but still touching. A great deal of the appeal rests with Emilia Clarke, who plays sweet and adorable, crinkling her face, wearing primary colors and floral patterns, putting on a chipper smile day after day. She’s clearly the ray of sunshine his gloomy outlook needs.
From cautious, tentative friendship to full on flirtation, the relationship becomes meaningful for both. Interestingly, it never quite becomes as romantic as you might suspect, as Will keeps Lou at a slight distance even when they’re at their closest. He feels inadequate, still mourning his mobility, feeling trapped because he can’t move anything below his neck. This has the unfortunate side effect of allowing the movie to treat a person with disabilities as if he’s a diminished person. Some characters ask if he’ll be getting back to work, but he’ll hear none of it. He’s simply too frustrated. No matter how happy being around Lou makes him, it won’t make up for his traumatic injuries. It allows his disability and his depression to become one, and incurable, as if it’s inherently a fate worse than death, while turning him into only an object by which her story of self-empowerment is enabled. Even in its loveliest moments – a spin on the dance floor, she in his lap while the camera is locked on the side of the wheelchair – it doesn’t stop bumping up against what it falsely perceives as limits to his ability to have a “normal” life.
The movie is also hopelessly dreamy about their connection. It asks an audience to appreciate how much better he is when she’s around, and how angry he is about not being who he used to be, while completely eliding some facts of his condition. It’s all too stiff upper lip, with suffering spoken of, but not seen. Coy cuts take us away from the messier elements of his daily life, and the set design keeps him behind closed doors for the real moments of pain and inconvenience. This isn’t a movie about a woman growing to love a man with a disability; it’s about a woman who loves a man despite his disability, as she’s conveniently allowed to skip all the most intense parts of helping him. We’re told he’s in pain, but he never shows the camera. We’re told he’s in a state of despair no emotional connection can cure, and yet there are only hints of such deep depression in his frowning into the middle distance. And then, in climactic moments involving a medical procedure, the scene fades out before the lump in my throat could properly form.
So it’s undercooked around the edges, and warm and gooey in the center. But it’s also slickly produced and attractively photographed to be sunny and bright, covered in soft coffeehouse soundtrack selections and wistful montage. Director Thea Sharrock (who has worked in theater and on the BBC’s Call the Midwife) makes it a rosy experience that can be effective in its falseness. I found myself on occasion sufficiently convinced by the syrupy button pushing, especially in the first half, before its nagging misjudgments start to pile up. Clarke and Claflin have fine chemistry together, and scenes are allowed to sit between the two of them as they draw closer, share space, and play out their maudlin dialogues. I wished it could be more fully fleshed out, and more deeply felt. It’s hesitant to find the real dark corners of its premise, the sharp jabs of pain sanded away until what’s left is a gentle sinking into its watery-eyed finale. But in the surface-minded approach it still manages to whip up enough sympathy for its leads to nearly sell the whole experience.