“Me Before You” is such a wonderfully uncynical movie that it almost doesn’t matter that it isn’t very good. Adapted by Jojo Moyes from her beloved 2012 novel of the same name, this industrial-strength tear-jerker has all the subtlety of being hit by a runaway motorcycle, but it’s amazing how even the most strained of love stories can be completely revitalized by a palpable human touch. This may look like a Nicolas Sparks knockoff, but the difference between “A Walk to Remember” and “Me Before You” is the difference between “2001” and “Chappie.”
Louisa Clark (“Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke, hardly recognizable without her dragons) is a spirited 26-year-old from a struggling middle-class family. Essentially a live-action Disney princess, Lou dresses as though she’s channeled all of the excitement that’s missing from her life into her eccentric wardrobe, and she wears her emotions so broadly on her face that she might as well be a human emoji. Alas, this bubbly creature is a bit down in the dumps — the bakery where she works has been forced to lay her off, and Lou is growing convinced that her potential is as dim as her job prospects. She’s lost sight of what the world has to offer her, and what she might have to offer the world in return.
Desperate for work, Lou interviews to be a caregiver for Will Traynor, the newly quadriplegic hunk who lives with his family in the massive castle at the center of town. Showing up to the audition in an ’80s-era power-suit that splits down the thigh as soon as she meets Will’s severe mother (Janet McTeer), Lou couldn’t be more clearly unqualified to care for another human being. She’s hired on the spot.
As per the grand tradition of thinly veiled “Beauty and the Beast” knockoffs, Will is a miserable ass until the new woman in his life finds a way to pierce his icy veneer. Embodied with terrific pompousness by “Hunger Games” star Sam Claflin, the actor uses his high cheekbones and peevish eyes to convey everything about the man Will was before the runaway motorcycle accident that crippled him (Claflin reportedly lost a bunch of weight for the role, but even bound to his motorized wheelchair it’s clear that he’s still a strapping physical specimen).
She’s poor and provincial, but she has the world at her feet. He’s rich and experienced, but has no feeling in his legs. Lou and Will inevitably fall in love and begin to see life anew through the joy they give one another, but there’s one snag that keeps the romance anchored to the ground: Will wants to kill himself.
Directed with rare intimacy by theater veteran Thea Sharrock (she oversaw the recent revival of “Equus,” fronted by Daniel Radcliffe), “Me Before You” bends some of its genre’s most tiresome tropes into a love story that hits with the blunt impact of a broken heart. This is a glossy melodrama fit for the multiplexes (Remi Adefarasin’s sparkling cinematography allows the movie to double as a feature-length ad for Wales), but it hits a nerve because Moyes’ story never betrays its characters or what they want from the world, and because the sweetness of its candied telling doesn’t overwhelm the truths at its core.
Clichés abound: Of course Lou has a boyfriend (Matthew Lewis, who seems to have been injected by the Captain America serum since his days as Neville Longbottom), and of course he’s such a complete dolt that no one will judge Lou for ditching him at the end of the second act. In fact, for a film about such an unfortunate predicament, much of the messiness is swept under the rug.
Lou never has to confront the ugly physical realities of caring for a severely impaired person, as Will has a kind aide (Aussie actor Stephen Peacoke) who takes care of all the dirty work. As narratively convenient as that may be, it’s also a reasonable setup for a super-rich man who needs round-the-clock assistance. Moyes and Sharrock, however, have no such excuse when it comes to why their film elides so many of its most traumatic moments.
“Me Before You” isn’t “Amour,” nor does it have to be, but the blunt emotional honesty of its story is only sustained by circumventing so many of the tragic details that might have galvanized Will’s dire situation. “Me Before You” wants you to cry, but it doesn’t want you to suffer. It’s a difficult needle to thread — to quote the Ed Sheeran song that inevitably plays over the climactic moments: “Loving can hurt. Loving can hurt sometimes” — and one that the film negotiates by coating its unflinchingly frank melodrama with a thick layer of Hollywood shine.
But the human element shines through, thanks in large part to Sharrock’s flair for intimacy — most of the movie is set in the excited air between Clark and Claflin’s faces — and the sincerity of her film’s supporting characters, the boyfriend notwithstanding. In most versions of this story, Will’s parents would be borderline monsters who felt as though their son had failed them, and the fact that his father is played by Charles Dance (whose characters typically range from “evil” to “the most evil”) braces you to assume the worst. But while the Traynors have their understandable share of disappointments, their love for Will is every bit as palpable as their diminished hopes for his future.
It also helps that Lou thaws into less of a cartoon as “Me Before You” begins to flip the script on most popcorn melodramas — here, the manic pixie dream girl is the one who’s lost the swing in her step, and the man she’s been sent to fix is literally broken beyond repair. “I can make you happy,” Lou pleads to Will, but she may not be able to make him whole. This is a Movie with a capital “M,” but it’s the rare romance that becomes more beautiful by virtue of how it recognizes that even true love has its limits.
“Me Before You” is now playing in theaters.