"Me Before You" Mistreats Its Disabled Character For The Sake Of Romance
Honestly, fuck the whole concept of this new romantic weepy about a woman tasked with convincing a man with quadriplegia who has a death wish — both played by able-bodied young stars — that life is worth living.
Me Before You is another love story overshadowed by death. Here, a young woman named Louisa (Emilia Clarke), who goes by Lou, falls for Will (Sam Claflin), the man she's been hired to keep company, whose accident two years earlier made him quadriplegic. Louisa and Will are older than the teen couples in The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay — she's in her mid-twenties, and he's in his early thirties — but the film is very much a continuation of the recent resurgence in teary romances, in which hearts are more stalwart than the bodies in which they reside, and love collides with mortality so hard that whole forests' worth of tissue aren't enough to dry the audience's eyes.
The difference is — and it's quite a difference — Will isn't dying like Fault in Our Stars' Hazel or A Walk to Remember's Jamie; Will wants to die. He has decided to end his life, and it's only because he made a deal with his parents (Charles Dance and Janet McTeer) to hold off for six months that he hasn't yet follow through with his plan to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. Louisa unknowingly arrives during this period, desperate for a new job after having been laid off by the café where she worked for six years. She steps into Will's world after he's put a time limit on it, when he's testy and depressive, waiting in frustration. As he thaws to her bubbly charms (she is, he notes distastefully upon meeting her, "chatty," a quality he comes to appreciate), and as feelings well up between them, she becomes determined to prove to him that life is worth living — especially when it's with her.
Honestly? Fuck this whole concept.
Me Before You, which Thea Sharrock directed and Jojo Moyes adapted from her 2012 novel, never reconciles its hanky-wringing aims with the fact that its tragic male lead always has the option of choosing to live. Will's no longer the dashing, athletic finance bro living with his beautiful girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby) in a spacious loft that we get a glimpse of in the film's opening minutes. He relies on a wheelchair and the help of his two caregivers, Lou and occupational therapist Nathan (Steve Peacocke), who takes care of the physical aspects Lou isn't responsible for. He can no longer climb mountains or ski down them or anything close, and he's susceptible to pneumonia. But Me Before You makes it clear that it's not the difficulty of Will's new life that's the real problem — he admits that he could still have a good life — but that he can't reconcile what he lost. He was the shiny, bright master of the universe once, and now he's dependent on others, and because of it thinks he'd be better off dead.
It's a point of view that anyone actually living with a serious disability and, in all likelihood, without the resources to have one's stables converted into sleek, wheelchair-friendly living quarters, will undoubtably find enraging. But it's also a galling thing to underlie a romance, despite Claflin doing his best to sell Will as a Byronic hero slowly softening to the warmth of his working-class companion. Me Before You has an old-fashioned center, a romance in which a moody aristocrat's heart is captured by an unsophisticated young woman, whom he raises up with his attentions. Lou's family is loving but poor, sharing an overstuffed but lively house, while Will's is wealthy, repressed, and literally owns a castle. Lou favors quirky sweaters and colorful tights, and talks self-deprecatingly about the patrician blondes Will's used to in a way that might have more zing if she weren't herself played by an actor famous for the role of a platinum-maned queen. Will broadens Lou's horizons with foreign films and stories about Paris, reconnecting with the world through her experiences. Or at least that's Lou's hope.
Of course, they fall in love, sometimes sweetly, especially in the enchanting scene in which Lou accompanies Will to his ex's wedding, and they spin together on the dance floor, Lou perched on Will's lap. Then everything crumbles to pieces when the movie returns to its emotional blackmailing premise, in which Will has to decide if he's going to stick with his resolution, and if so, how Lou will react. This being a tearjerker, you can guess what his choice is, but that doesn't make it any less brutally manipulative of a development, especially given the way Will's death wish is positioned as a result of depression. A drama in which everyone, lips trembling, approves of an able-bodied person's desire for suicide would be obviously repellent, but in Me Before You, a man's suicidal ideation is treated as tragic but understandable, his disability making his life less worth saving.
Isn't that romantic? No, it's really not.