British actress and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke has more than her share of charisma, as well as a set of eyebrows that are perhaps the most mobile seen on the big screen in years. But neither are enough to fully save Me Before You, a cloying and predictable romantic drama that aims to make you blow through a box of tissues faster than Daenerys, mother of dragons, can light an enemy army on fire. Clarke is almost completely unrecognizable to Thrones fans here, keeping her clothes on and her anger in check even as her dignity takes a mild beating.
Based on a bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes (who also penned the screenplay), Me Before You introduces us first to Will Traynor (Sam Clafin, Finnick in the Hunger Games series), a high-flying finance hotshot who is paralyzed from the neck down in a London street accident. Two years later, we meet Louisa (Clarke), who works in a café and lives with her family in the same small British town where Will’s family has its ancestral castle. At 26, Louisa is unambitious and without goals of any note. But when she loses her job – which helped support her family – she must look for a new one and applies as a caregiver for Will. Despite no qualifications whatsoever, his mother Camilla and father Steven (Janet McTeer and Clarke’s fellow Game of Thrones star Charles Dance) inexplicably hire her.
Will, as you might expect, is embittered and depressed, having lost his girlfriend, his luxurious life and his well-paying job. He’s also initially cold to Louisa despite her endless mugging and goofy British variation on the manic pixie template. But since this is a romance, you know it’s only a matter of time before the two eventually warm up to each other and their relationship evolves from friendship to love…even if Will has a plan that will upend everything that has come before.
Clarke parades and whirls around in an endless assortment of crazily colorful outfits, while director Thea Sharrock (moving from the theater to make her film debut) pulls so many cutesy expressions out of her in close-up that the effect starts to become clownish. But Louisa is a sham of a character: meant to have a positive impact on Will, it is instead she who needs saving from her empty and directionless life, which can only be salvaged by the love and incredible wealth of a handsome prince. Will’s wheelchair becomes a throne to which Daenerys would never once think about bowing. Clarke is just appealing enough to get you through the more insufferable aspects of the character, but Louisa has no depth whatsoever.
Speaking of insufferable, Clafin tries hard to overcome his own pretty-boy blankness but, like Clarke, is given a difficult assignment: we are meant to believe that a life without a posh London apartment, a hot girlfriend and money raining from the sky is not one worth living – even if you end up in a posh apartment in a beautiful seaside town next to your family’s fucking castle, with your every need taken care of. We are told (via his nurse Nathan, played amiably by Stephen Peacocke) that Will lives in terrible pain, but we don’t experience it enough with him to understand his motivations, especially in the film’s latter stages.
Will ultimately comes across as kind of a jerk as a result – something I never thought I would say about a quadriplegic person – but so does Louisa in the scene where she dumps her boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) in order to escape on a tropical vacation with Will. Of course, the movie makes it easy: Patrick is a moron too, a one-dimensional buffoon who makes you wonder why Louisa spent seven years with him in the first place. Oh right, this Cinderella was waiting for the prince to come along.
Me Before You makes everything easy, even the possibilities of death and loss. No one ever seems to really struggle in the film, a remarkable achievement for a story where one of the central characters has lost almost everything important to him. As a result, the relentless attempt to wring tears from our eyes comes across as hollow and manipulative. I was more moved by the beauty of the locations, which Sharrock shoots as lovingly as her two camera-ready leads, and more riveted by wondering just how high Clarke’s eyebrows could go before they vanished into her hairline.
Me Before You is in theaters on Friday (June 3).