Me Before You

(2016) * 1/2 Pg-13
110 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Thea Sharrock. Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis.

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Prominent journalist John Hockenberry—also a quadriplegic and disability activist—savaged Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby for what Hockenberry called its “crip ex machina...plot-twist that a quadriplegic would sputter into medical agony in a matter of months and embrace suicide as her only option in a nation where millions of people with spinal cord injuries lead full long lives.” Since then, we’ve had some positive films about quadriplegics (most prominently Murderball and The Sessions), but here comes Me Before You.

Adapted by Jojo Moyes from her own bestseller, the romantic drama posits an extreme-sports loving Richie Rich (Sam Claflin’s Will Traynor) who meets with an accident that renders him quadriplegic. He promptly self-destructs his marriage and gives up on life, prompting his mother Camilla (Janet McTeer) to plot ways to make him see his life is still worth living. Enter quirky, klutzy, full-of-life Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke, better known as the mother of dragons on Game of Thrones), hired by Camilla for the “no experience necessary” job of caregiver. Of course, Camilla’s idea of Lou caregiving is Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl-ing Will pack into psychological health.

Lou comes from a hardscrabble family (including sis Jenna Coleman, of Doctor Who fame) packed into a small home that depends on Lou’s paychecks. This sets up a contrast to Will’s (painfully mocking) luxury, but one that doesn’t end up going anywhere interesting, like most ideas raised in this movie. And so we watch as Will contends with unbearable pain (physical and psychological) and life-threatening health scares that supposedly add up to his life being unendurable, perhaps even with true love calling.

Yes, something like love develops between Will and Lou as they inevitably forge a bond, but will it be enough to keep suicidal determination at bay? Moyes’ screenplay oddly lacks insight and depth, and a fine director (stage-bred Thea Sharrock, who directed the recent telefilm of Henry V with Tom Hiddleston) nevertheless seems totally hapless at making more from this material than the most conventional film possible. It doesn’t help that Sharrock allows or, indeed, encourages Clarke to give a shamelessly theatrical performance—pitched as if to the back row of a West End house—with a camera a few feet from her face: eyes pop, eyebrows dance, mouth twists until you’ll beg for mercy.

Or squeal with delight and, later, reach for your hanky, because Me Without You is the sort of film to starkly divide audiences: hard cases will wince at the clichés and Clarke’s performance; starry-eyed weepie fans will get what they came for. But Hockenberry’s criticism of Million Dollar Baby feels even more apt for this relatively graceless and shameless film, which leaves some of the most important options unexamined.

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