There are few films addressing the topic of disability that have generated quite as much controversy as Me Before You, adapted from the Jojo Moyes book of the same name and starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in the lead roles.
I hadn’t watched it at the time, but I am one of those people who has a truckload of useless pop culture knowledge without actually having consumed the associated media, so I had opinions. I, like many others in the disability community, did not approve of the message of this film. However, after three of my girlfriends who had watched and loved the movie (one of whom is disabled) told me that I shouldn’t criticise something that I haven’t actually watched, I decided to give it a bash. I thought I could at least have fun mocking the cringe, and perhaps even turn it into a drinking game where the rules would involve drinking every time something ableist is said or portrayed. After a careful watch (I decided to save the drinking game for a second viewing during which I wouldn’t have to pay attention for the purposes of a review) I came to two conclusions: first, that the acting was enjoyable and the storyline wasn’t as terrible as I had initially thought (up to a point) and secondly, that I was completely right about the main message being plain wrong.
I will begin with a quick synopsis, so a massive spoiler alert is in order. Louisa “Lou” Clark gets a job as a care assistant to ex banker and adventurous sportsman Will Traynor, who became quadriplegic after being hit by a motorcycle. Will’s mother hopes that Lou’s bubbly disposition will cheer him up. Will is very bitter and jaded, and he is initially extremely rude and cold towards Lou. After some time and some conversations, Will warms up towards her and they become close. Lou learns that Will is worldly and cultured, which contrasts with her own simple life. Lou overhears an argument between Will’s parents in which it is revealed that Will intends to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide (where this is legal) after a six month period which he conceded to his parents. The reason for this is that Will is unable to accept life as someone with a disability, after all of the rich experiences that he had as a nondisabled man.
Lou decides to try to change his mind and to show him that life is still worth living in the remaining months, and takes him on a series of adventures including a luxurious trip. In this time period, Lou and her boyfriend break up, and she also attends Will’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding with him. They dance, with Lou sitting on Will’s lap in his wheelchair, and they fall in love.
However, the fun and games are cut short when Will reveals to Lou during their trip to Mauritius that he still intends to go through with the assisted suicide plan. He wants her to live a “full life”, and believes that a life with him would only be half a life. Lou is devastated and resigns, and refuses to see him until her father convinces her to visit him. She finds out he is already in Switzerland, so she follows him there to support him and to say goodbye. Jumping forward in time by a few weeks, Lou reads a letter whilst sitting in Will’s favourite café in Paris. Essentially, Will tells her in the letter that he has left her enough money to live her dreams, and that she shouldn’t think about him too often, but go forth and live life to the fullest.
Let’s start with the things I enjoyed. As I said, the acting was good, which is to be expected from such a stellar cast. Being a total fantasy nerd, I was excited to see Emilia Clarke (who played Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, one of my all-time favourite characters) portraying Louisa Clark, as well as Sam Claflin portraying Will Traynor (he played fan favourite character Finnick Odair in the Hunger Games franchise). He is yet another nondisabled actor portraying a disabled character, which is problematic in and of itself, but that’s a topic for another day. Of course there was also the amazing Charles Dance portraying Will’s father Steven (also starring in Game of Thrones as Tywin Lannister) and Matthew Lewis (who of course played Nevil Longbottom in the Harry Potter films) portraying Lou’s boyfriend Patrick.
There was also some pretty okay humour in the first three-quarters of the film which made me chuckle. I am not referring to when Will tries to make Lou uncomfortable when they first meet by making moaning and wheezing sounds that are stereotyped to be sounds made by most disabled people. This was supposed to make the audience laugh, but it fell flat for me.
Regardless, despite the tired “girl helps bitter disabled dude chill a bit and falls in love with him” trope, the first three-quarters of the film was not unbearable. It was actually quite enjoyable. But then, it all goes to hell in a handcart.
More on the last quarter of the film (the most problematic part) later, but first I would like to address the initial issues that I have with the story. Again, there’s a care assistant (which could be considered to be a position of power) interacting with someone who is portrayed as being able to do very little for himself. He is angry and jaded about becoming disabled. Okay, fair enough. Some people do go through extreme grief after having experienced such a loss, and this can be expressed through anger and bitterness. The issue is that so many films featuring disabled characters portray them this way though, and there are few where the disabled individual is actually okay with their disability, or is actively working to come to terms with it.
There’s a scene where it is noticeable that the care assistant starts to fall in love with the disabled person as she is tending to him when he is sick. It is implied that the acts of seeing him vulnerable, being worried about him, and “taking care” of him are what unlock these loving feelings. It is completely possible that a care assistant might fall in love with a disabled person through seeing their vulnerabilities and caring for them. It is worth noting that the opposite of the traditional understanding of transference (in a case where a client falls in love with their therapist) can also occur, where a therapist or someone in a similar position might develop feelings for a person through seeing their most personal, vulnerable sides. However, I would argue that this can also be seen as too much of a trope. Instead, it might have been less problematic if the nondisabled character was portrayed as falling in love with the disabled character under neutral circumstances, or even as a result of learning something about a cool capability that the disabled person has.
I would not be properly covering the topic of tropes if I didn’t address the fact that Lou is an absolute “manic pixy dream girl.”. This is essentially a girl in film or television who is quirky, energetic, playful and childlike, high on life, and of course attractive, and shows the broody male hero what wonders the world holds and livens up his life. Lou, with her bumblebee striped tights and other wacky colourful clothing, as well as her relentless optimism, is a perfect example.
Now, on to the final quarter of the film. One of the strongest messages throughout the story is summed up in a sentence spoken by Will’s father: “Will needs to be allowed to feel like a man.” How do I even begin to explain the extreme problematic nature of this sentence? Firstly, “Will needs…”: Who gets to decide what Will needs? Apparently the nondisabled characters, because he wasn’t asked about his needs. “Will needs to be allowed…”: To be allowed? Who is giving him permission, and why does he need it? “…to feel like a man”: To feel like one? So he’s not a man? According to the characters in the film, including Will, he is not. He is the shadow of a man that once was. The whole film revolves around the fact that Will was so much more human before his accident. So much more of a man, which apparently one can no longer be when disabled.
This is further reflected in his conversation with Lou, in which he tells her that he still intends to go ahead with his assisted suicide plan. He says that he can’t have her tied to him, because other men could offer her so much more. He even implies that he can’t see her naked or interact sexually with her, completely ignoring the fact that quadriplegic people are often perfectly capable of having satisfying sex. Aside from perpetuating the idea that disabled people are asexual, the whole conversation perpetuates the idea that a life with a disabled partner could never be as fulfilling as a life with a nondisabled partner. I have written extensively on my issues with this idea before, pointing out that disabled partners offer as much to their relationships as their nondisabled counterparts. This film shows us a character who is clearly smart, cultured, highly attractive, Kind (eventually), and a multimillionaire to boot, and communicates to us that this is still not enough to offer a nondisabled partner.
On a side note, Will’s behaviours and decisions can be seen as sexist. He doesn’t care about Lou’s opinion, or what she wants. Lou wants to be with Will, but he decides on her behalf that a disabled partner is not enough. He is also constantly putting her simple lifestyle down, and telling her how she should be experiencing and doing so much more, despite the fact that she seems perfectly content with her life the way it is. This is just another man telling a woman what’s good for her.
As we already know, Lou fails in her attempts to convince Will that life is worthwhile. He goes to Switzerland anyway, and goes ahead with assisted suicide. Lou eventually comes around to his point of view, and the decision is sold to us as a disabled person taking ownership, displaying autonomy, and deciding for himself what he wants to do with his life, even if that decision is to end it. Here’s the problem. Depression caused by grieving a loss should not be pushed as a good reason to commit suicide. The world should not be receiving the message that disabled people should act as martyrs, conveniently removing themselves from society so as to no longer be a burden on their nondisabled families, friends and lovers. It is not “better dead than disabled”. Most people with disabilities would much rather be living than dead, thank you very much. Our lives are rich, and they are worth as much as any nondisabled life. They should not be written off.
You may be thinking: “But each disabled person is different, so shouldn’t Will have a right to his own opinion about his own life? There are people who feel the same as he does, after all, and they should be represented.” Yes, they should be represented, but the problem is that they are represented so very often in the media, and there is a massive imbalance. When last did you see a movie or show in which there was a disabled character who was just another character living life, or who’s story didn’t centre around their disability? Imagine if one of the characters in Friends or How I Met Your Mother was disabled, but their story was exactly the same, perhaps barring a few experiences of inaccessible environments or exclusion? I’m willing to bet my remaining eyesight that you probably haven’t seen such a show or film, and I would argue that before we see more sob stories about how awful a disabled person’s life is on screen, we should see more representations of disabled people whose disabilities are just one of their many characteristics.
When I decided to watch this film, I made up my mind to try to be open minded. Who knows. Maybe, through studying Will’s logic, I could come around to the idea that this was the best decision for this specific individual. Needless to say, this was not my conclusion. Will acknowledges that he “gets” why a disabled life could be fulfilling for some people, but as he says: “I can’t be the kind of man who just accepts this.” What kind of man is that? He seems to be implying that a weaker man could accept disability. However, in my opinion, the kind of man who could move through the grieving process, then go on to accept his disability and find different ways of living a rich life is the stronger man. Will, with his refusal to even try to understand this concept, and his refusal to properly accept the love of a woman who wants him not despite, but with his disability, is a coward.
My final criticism of the movie is it’s actual focus, because make no mistake, it isn’t really about Will at all. It is about Louisa, and how she was changed by meeting Will. Will was not truly changed by meeting her. He went ahead with his original plan anyway, despite her best attempts to make him change his mind. His views of what life with a disability could be, did not change. In contrast, after meeting Will, Lou became interested in culture and an adventurous life, and suddenly she had lots of money with which to “live life to the fullest”. In his final letter, Will says that Lou shouldn’t think of him too much. This pretty much clinches it. It was never about him. It was about the nondisabled character all along, and the disabled character was just a catalyst for her growth.
So, to summarise, me after watching Me Before You equals highly unimpressed, to say the least. Hollywood, please, for the love of popcorn, do better.