Nicholas Sparks need have no fear of losing his crown as the master of the weepie to Jojo Moyes, at least if Thea Sharrock’s glossy but curiously uninvolving adaptation of her best-selling novel “Me Before You” is any indication. Viewers are being advised to bring boxes of tissues with them to the theatre, but that’s advice you need take to heart only if you have a cold; you’re not likely to need them otherwise.
The set-up is oddly reminiscent of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s “The Intouchables,” except that the relationship it focuses on is between a man and a woman rather than two guys. Here, Sam Claflin stars as Will Traynor, a high-powered young London financier living in a glitzy apartment with his lovely fiancée Alice (Vanessa Kirby). Leaving for the office one rainy morning, he decides not to take his motorcycle but hail a cab; ironically, he’s struck by a passing motorbike.
A couple of years later, he’s a quadriplegic living in the family’s rustic castle with his parents Camilla and Steven (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance), regularly attended by hunky therapist Nathan (Stephen Peacocke). For reasons that will eventually be revealed, Camilla is in the process of hiring a companion for her sullen, embittered son, and one of the applicants is Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), an almost unbearably chipper girl with a penchant for extraordinarily garish clothes. Lou, as she’s called, has just lost her job as a waitress at a local bakery that apparently caters to elderly women, and her out-of-work father Bernard (Brendan Coyle) and mother Josie (Samantha Spiro) fret over how they’ll be able to make ends meet with the loss of her income. (The household also includes an elderly grandfather, a younger brother, and older sister Katrina—played by Jenna Coleman—whom the family hopes to send off to college.)
For some reason Camilla hires Lou over a passel of clearly more qualified candidates, and the inevitable occurs. The girl’s incessantly cheeky good-will eventually breaks through Will’s brooding exterior, and he decides to become a sort of mentor to the untutored caregiver, introducing her to such astronomically exotic items as subtitled films. He even lets her shave off his scraggly beard.
Just as matters seem to be going so well, however, Lou finds that not only has Will tried to commit suicide in the past, he’s also made an agreement with his parents: he’ll endure six more months of pain and depression to reconsider, but at the end of it he intends to go to Switzerland, where he’s arranged to end his life legally with a “die with dignity” group. Horrified, she determines to change his mind by arranging a bunch of outings that will show his him life is still worth living. They’ll go to a horserace and a classical music concert, and eventually to a tropical paradise, where their relationship reaches an expectable culmination. They even attend the wedding of Alice to Will’s erstwhile best friend Rupert (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), where Lou gets some sagely direct advice from a tipsy guest (Joanna Lumley). But nothing, it seems, can sway Will’s determination. At this point “Me Before You” turns into a debate about euthanasia, with one character, ostentatiously wearing a necklace with a crucifix, adamantly arguing against it. But the script never considers the issue with any depth whatsoever—and the subplot about Lou’s dopey boyfriend (Matthew Lewis) feeling jealous about her absorption with Will makes everything worse.
Still, the picture could have worked as a crassly maudlin tearjerker if it were more expertly made. To be sure, the locations are nice, Andrew McAlpine’s production design is handsome and Remi Adefarasin’s lensing gives everything a lustrous sheen. If you go in for that sort of thing, Jill Taylor’s costumes for Lou are also appropriately cutesy.
But otherwise the pickings are pretty slim. Sharrock, making a transition from the stage, exhibits nothing but bland efficiency, and she coaxes disappointing performances from the cast. Clarke might be a nice person, but her juvenile perkiness quickly grows irritating, and her attempts at seriousness carry little weight. Claflin, on the other hand, is hunky but pretty much a cipher, and the two never generate much romantic heat. (To reference a picture this one is obviously trying to be a grown-up cousin to, you might say that the fault lies, to a considerable extent, in its stars.) McTeer and Dance are saddled with having to express an excess of British stiff-upper-lipness, while Lewis is all too convincing as a self-absorbed dullard. No one else is assigned a character that goes beyond sketch level, though Peacocke has the same easygoing charm about him that he showed as the security man in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”
One expects a tearjerker to be grossly manipulative, but the memorable ones do the job efficiently; this one doesn’t. So Nicholas Sparks remains indisputably the Fannie Hurst of our generation, the purveyor of mawkish junk that the tear ducts of the target audience will respond to. The only benefit of “Me Before You” is that it will save you money on Kleenex.