At one point during the new romance Me Before You, lead female character Louisa is shown casually reading Marian Keyes's Sushi for Beginners. The book is a famous example of the "chick lit" genre of adult romance novels of the late '90s, full of quirky 20-something female characters trying to find themselves and find love while navigating their professional worlds; seeing Louisa reading it is an odd moment of the film lampshading its own rom-com roots.
Louisa is indeed a quirky 20-something female character trying to find herself and find love in a professional context, but both she and Me Before You otherwise seem to have little self-awareness. What they do have in excess, however, is plenty of color and a zest for life — an interesting choice given that the film revolves around assisted suicide and is arguably a treatise suggesting that perhaps quadriplegics would be better off dead.
A chaste, prim story about a girl who falls in love with an eccentric wheelchair-bound gazillionaire, Me Before You is based on a 2013 romantic best-seller of the same name, with a screenplay by its author, Jojo Moyes. To fans of John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, Me Before You might seem like a more grown-up version of the same story, thanks to its similar themes of living for today while accepting death.
But both book and film versions of Me Before You have come under intense fire from disability activists who, through personal essays and protest hashtags, have argued that the story depicts being disabled as inherently tragic and implies that disabled individuals have little to live for.
Indeed, the entire second half of the film is essentially right-to-die propaganda, which director Thea Sharrock sets against a typical rom-com backdrop of sumptuous scenery, lots of cute bonding moments between our heroes, and obnoxious songs about love dubbed over sweeping cinematography.
In other words, if you've ever wanted your romance with a side of disability and chronic pain, Me Before You is perfect for you — as long as you don't actually want a realistic depiction of any of those things.
Me Before You is a modern Jane Eyre where Mr. Rochester is the mad quadriplegic in the attic
In many respects, Moyes's story is Jane Eyre for a modern generation, albeit one without any of the complexity and even more suicidal ideation. Our Jane is Louisa, a contemporary version of the attentive governess as played by Emilia Clarke, far removed from her day job of setting people on fire on Game of Thrones. Like Jane, Louisa is tiny, dark-haired, and diminutive; but she's also an aimless, uncultured, down-on-her-luck millennial who doesn't really do much except look for jobs, stress over supporting her working-class family, and fixate over her low-grade fashion style.
Our Rochester is Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), the accomplished, eligible son of some vaguely noble British castle owners. After a motorcycle collision, Will is paralyzed from the neck down and subsequently, so we're told, pushes away everyone in his life save for his devoted parents. (This time, it's Mr. Rochester's ex who leaves him in the attic after his period of madness — she breaks up with him after the accident and marries his best friend instead.)
Isolated and sullen, Will has already vowed, by the start of the film, to end his life after a final six-month period (the film doesn't dwell on how he arrived at the six-month period as a benchmark). His mother, played by the always-compelling Janet McTeer, hires Louisa to be his caregiver and companion for the remainder of that period, with the secret hope that Louisa will be able to convince her son to change his mind.
To prove her natural ability to cheer up just about anyone, Clarke spends the first 15 minutes of the movie wearing a rictus grin so chipper that as she nannies her way into the life of Claflin's angry quadriplegic, one wonders if she's secretly plotting revenge on Emily Blunt for landing her dream role of Mary Poppins.
Before long, Louisa and Will are two burgeoning lovebirds discovering life anew through each other, as Louisa starts accompanying Will to concerts and allowing him to introduce her to the wonders of subtitled European movies. Meanwhile, she tolerates his occasional temper tantrums and violent outbursts, and spends most of her time sitting around trying to be nice to him.
Though Will mellows out as he gets to know Louisa, the film doesn't take too many pains to show us what she sees in him besides the obvious qualities — lots of money, a steady paycheck, access to art house DVDs, and his desire to witness her wide-eyed intake of new life experiences.
Despite — or perhaps because of — Clarke's attempts to project her Winsomeness with a capital W, she had the audience at my press screening of Me Before You eating out of her daintily manicured hand. Though the actress has yet to prove her movie star potential, she definitely won on audience appeal, in no little part thanks to the incessantly quirky attire that costume designer Jill Taylor has dressed her in; Louisa's bedazzled Cinderella shoes are louder than the entire rest of the cast.
Unfortunately, they do nothing to drown out the raging inconsistencies of Me Before You's blithely oblivious love story.
Will's struggle to adapt to his quadriplegia takes place on the lowest possible difficulty setting, and yet it's still too much for him
Though we're told, repeatedly, that Will hates his life, we never really see the cloud of depression and chronic pain that we're asked to accept haunts the character. Relegated to acting entirely with his face, the able-bodied Claflin duly hams it up with an over-expressive sarcastic zeal and echoes of Hugh Grant's louche insouciance that only rarely, if ever, suggests the deep world of pain that Will is meant to be experiencing.
A fusillade of his pills and pain medication is introduced once and then never mentioned again. We're informed that Will often wakes screaming at night — not from pain, but from the shock of dreaming about his old life. We see more of Will's struggle through the creased worry on the face of Nathan, his physical therapist (a capable Stephen Peacocke), than we ever see from Will himself.
This creates a strange dichotomy between the story being presented and what we actually see. We're told that Will finds his life unbearable, and he voices concern over the indignity of being rendered "invisible" in public places, but this worry never comes to pass. And his family's high-class standing affords him a reverence from other characters, including talented Doctor Who alum Jenna Coleman, who is wasted in her part as Louisa's supportive sister.
When he does face contempt — from Louisa's self-centered fitness nut of a boyfriend, a threadbare character in the hands of Harry Potter heartthrob Matthew Lewis — it doesn't approximate the world's ill treatment of disabled characters, which really isn't on display at all.
Will's money allows him to arrange luxurious trips overseas with both of his caregivers and affords him the services of a dignified potential death in a Swiss chalet. As far as Me Before You lets on, he is perpetually shielded from most of the indignities and the prohibitive costs of living with a disability and chronic pain that so many others must deal with; the largest inconvenience he seems to suffer while disabled is getting mud on his designer shoes while attending a horse race.
All of this makes it impossible not to wonder about how much harder life must be in this film's universe for anyone permanently disabled who's not blessed with tons of cash and a supportive family with ample resources to spare. If this guy — handsome and still young, with a girlfriend as attractive as Emilia Clarke and the ability to jet off to the beach whenever he wishes — thinks his life isn't worth living, then surely most people with similar ailments might as well off themselves on the spot, right?
Me Before You doesn't address any of these questions, nor does it ever acknowledge the privilege behind Will's view of his own disability. Instead, it's content to focus on the theme of healthy selfishness indicated by its title, which in this case includes the right to die.
Yet even this tension fails to deliver meaningful drama; the matter of Will's life or death is solely a convenient plot device for delivering a highly implausible dream-come-true scenario in which a rich bachelor gives a beautiful poor woman everything she could ever desire, including exotic vacations, a cultural education, a lot of money, a trip to Paris, and a future. In Will's case, he even gives Louisa's father a job, securing her whole family's livelihood — all for the price of Louisa showing up with nothing whatsoever to offer save cable-knit sweaters, striped leggings, and a winning smile.
In the end, the narrative doesn't even require Louisa to negotiate the challenges of having sex with a functionally disabled boyfriend, because her disposable benefactor is too focused on preserving her heart for the next guy who comes along.
This isn't just the stuff of romantic comedy; it's a straightforward fairy tale where Mr. Right wants to conveniently pop off before things get too complicated. While the film obviously intends to toy with the idea of "happily ever after," in effect, Me Before You plays out like a daydream in which assisted suicide is just another fantasy route to permanent happiness.
Rom-coms have rarely been so pleasant.
Me Before You is playing in theaters everywhere.
Correction: this article originally misidentified Will's quadriplegia as paraplegia.