Imagine “The Intouchables” with more romance and less chemistry, crossbred with a far tamer version of “Pretty Woman” so lacking in eroticism that its PG-13 rating seems unduly harsh, and you’re halfway toward picturing Thea Sharrock’s “Me Before You.”
Pairing a working-class British lass with an icy, quadriplegic aristocrat whose heart she’s been hired to melt, “Me Before You” would seem to boast a can’t-miss premise — class divides and medical misfortune being the peanut butter-and-jelly of tear-jerking romance. But Sharrock’s technically-sound yet workmanlike direction never sells the emotional peaks and troughs, the characters are alternately too exaggerated and too buttoned-down to come to life, and the final resolution pushes the film into morally provocative territory that it has neither the inclination nor the courage to confront.
That said, considering the popularity of Jojo Moyes’ bestselling source novel (she adapts her own work here), and Hollywood’s bizarre reluctance to make the sort of big-hearted romantic dramas that would seem to be its most reliable date-night draws, the film ought to do solid business, burnishing the rising careers of its stars, Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) and Sam Claflin (“The Hunger Games” movies).
Though Clarke is the clear protagonist, Claflin is the star of the film’s first reel. Here he’s cast as Will Traynor, a debonair London financier from a family rich enough to own its own castle, who spends his spare time skiing, windsurfing, cliff-diving and bedding flashy women. In spite of these high-risk pursuits, he’s horribly injured the one time he tries to play it safe: Opting against taking his motorcycle to work on a rainy morning, he’s hit by a bike while crossing the street and left paralyzed.
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Two years later, we find ourselves in an unnamed English country town, backgrounded at all times by the looming Traynor castle in the distance. Twenty-six-year-old Louisa “Lou” Clark (Clarke) has lived here all her life, helping support her large extended family as a waitress. She’s burdened with a limp noodle of a boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), who ignores her to pursue his twin passions of running and entrepreneurship; to wit, he’s introduced running laps in his “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” shirt.
Guileless, naïve and accident-prone, Lou is such a ray of sunshine that her offer to wrap up a customer’s leftover sandwich elicits the sort of reaction you’d usually see from recent lottery winners, but she’s thrown for a loop when her quaint tea shop closes down.
Heading to the unemployment office, she’s assigned a lucrative temp position at the Traynor mansion. The job, essentially, is to be a paid companion for Will, who now sports scraggly hair, a beard, and an arsenal of withering quips. As the script is a bit too quick to note, her position doesn’t require her to do any of the real heavy lifting that caring for a quadriplegic demands, with bathroom and bathing duties handled by a hunky nurse (Stephen Peacocke). No, as Will’s imperious mother (Janet McTeer) and kindly father (Charles Dance) explain, she’s there to cheer him up.
Like too many filmic depictions of good-hearted lower-class people, Lou is clearly meant to be relatably ordinary, but instead comes across as frustratingly dim, if not emotionally stunted: She is equally aghast by the notion that her caregiver job requires her to occasionally dispense medication as she is by the revelation that Will watches films that require subtitles. Yet in spite of her continually insane wardrobe and borderline ineptitude, Will eventually warms up to Lou, hoping to expand her provincial horizons, and she starts to bring a bit of genuine cheer into his sterile abode.
However, Lou soon learns the real implications of her job: Distraught by the loss of his old lifestyle and beset by chronic pain – in keeping with the film’s misguided gentility, we’re often told of his suffering, yet scarcely allowed to really feel it – Will plans to end his life at a dying-with-dignity facility in Switzerland. He’s promised his mother to spend six months weighing the decision, and she hired Lou as part of a last-ditch campaign to help change his mind. Horrified, Lou starts plotting a series of outings and luxury vacations to brighten Will’s life.
These are deep, complicated issues the film wades into, and it quickly winds up out of its depth. Aside from its inelegant way of addressing the politics of euthanasia — with the con side represented by a character, never previously identified as religious, now prominently wearing a crucifix — “Me Before You’s” admirable presentation of a disabled person as a swoon-worthy romantic lead collides awkwardly with its implicit suggestion that perhaps such a life isn’t even worth living, and the undercurrents of wish-fulfillment leave a sour taste. The skittish delicacy with which it tiptoes around the realities of quadriplegia doesn’t help; 2014’s romance “The Fault in Our Stars” was far bolder and more honest about the painful details of living with serious medical difficulties, and that was a film aimed at teenagers.
Claflin and Clarke are both effortlessly appealing actors, yet neither of their performances really click. Clarke has a hugely expressive face, but too often here she simply cycles back and forth between aggressively adorkable cutesiness and dewy-eyed pathos, as if she’s continually modeling for either a Kewpie doll or a marble statue of the Pietà. The range of Claflin’s character is likewise limited, with his attitude toward Lou shifting on a dime from condescending distaste to condescending affection.
Sharrock, a veteran theater director making her filmmaking debut, certainly maintains an air of sweetness throughout, and several scenes throb with unexpected resonance. The dignified mortification on Will’s face when Lou recruits a gang of blokes to lift his wheelchair out of the mud is affectingly underplayed, and a late wedding scene hums with the sort of real romantic charge that goes missing elsewhere. But too many of the bigger moments play out with curious airlessness, as on-the-nose music cues from Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons give heavy scenes a saggy atmosphere.
But that’s “Me Before You” in a nutshell: A melodrama with soft-rock ballads where its beating heart should be.