‘Me Before You’
Director:
Thea Sharrock
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

It all sounds toxically Nicholas Sparks. “Me Before You,” like many of the trash author’s endlessly filmed tomes, concerns a pretty wallflower: Emilia Clarke’s bubbly and loudly dressed ex-tea shop matron, Louisa. She finds love from across the tracks: She’s poor and Sam Claflin’s Will, the object of Louisa’s (eventual) affection, is a strapping rich kid. There’s the specter of looming tragedy: Will is not simply emotionally deficient a la most Sparks bros; he’s also paralyzed from the neck down, and has toyed with taking his life. After all, flirting with heavy subject matter it can in no way handle is another Sparks go-to.

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But “Me Before You” has an ace up its sleeve: It’s British. That’s to say: It’s able to temper the melodrama, be humorous as often as it is romantic, and generally give off an air of primp restraint. Its source, the bestseller by Jojo Moyes, comes off like Sparks for people who can read. Her novel becomes this summer’s splashy euthanasia romance, and if it’s not quite smart, it is the rare blockbuster where our two lovebirds first bond not by trading hesitant glances but by watching the French religion drama “Of Gods and Men.” Props.

Also helping: Claflin’s tightly-wound, dryly sarcastic spin on the guy who must be tamed by a good woman. Transformed by a dumb accident from an Xtreme sports Londoner into a bitter recluse with shaggy-but-still-dashing Lord Byron locks, Will is nonplussed when Louisa materializes as his latest caretaker. Slowly Will’s put-downs (Him: “What do you like?” Her: “I like clothes.” Him, unamused: “You like clothes”) turn from dismissive to flirty. Still their love stays chaste and unconsummated, in the long, fine tradition of British romance, going back to “Brief Encounter” and beyond. And there’s still that pesky fact that Will might not want to be long for this world.

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Where Claflin is precise, Clarke is so gawky, so prone to wide-eyed staring that she sometimes comes off as an amateur. And yet they make for a good mismatched duo. Moreover, Clarke’s oft-spluttering turn eventually becomes a force for good; let’s see the Sparks Cinematic Universe boast a scene as goofy as her piercing, mega-flip out over Will gifting her with some much-wanted tights. 

Still, however much “Me Before You” amps up its Britishness, it can’t charm its way out of everything. At heart it’s a thumb-twiddler that glosses over a hotly-debated topic, that also glosses over class issues and features stock elements like Louisa’s dim boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), who exists solely to be belatedly dumped. Give it American accents and it would fizzle away. But with the right accents and sense of humor, it’s mostly harmless.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge