Thea Sharrock’s film ‘Me before You’

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Adapted by Jojo Moyes from her 2012 novel Me Before You this British-American romantic film premiered in cinemas nationally last week to much protest from disabled people. Alison Wilde analyses a film that makes a gnawing toothache feel like fun.

A group of protesters outside a cinema with flyers promoting the 'not dead yet' message

A group of protesters gather outside a cinema showing ‘Me Before You’

I saw this film on the first day of screening, partly to see how the audience responded to it, but also because it will be part of a chapter on romantic comedy in a book I’m writing on disability and film. And as I was part of a demonstration at the cinema the following day I was able to avoid the charge that I was criticising the film without having seen it.

I would like to expand on what has already been written, not repeat it. I wholeheartedly agree that no-one needs another film which suggests it is better to be dead than disabled. Considering the (rightful) furore about the suicide narrative, the multitude of reviews on the topic, and the counter-criticisms that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding, I set myself the task of considering whether the film has any merits when this over-arching narrative is forgotten; I immersed myself in the cinema experience, even tolerating the adverts. I endeavoured to watch the film as if I was non-disabled with little experience of the social model, a mind-experiment which seemed to result in a crashing migraine, and a gnawing toothache – I enjoyed these slightly more than the film.

I found an insidious narrative about how we should live permeated almost every frame of the film’s story, dominating Will’s (Sam Claflin) embryonic relationship with Lou (Emilia Clarke), his beautiful and quirky paid ‘carer’. Actually, this film is not about Will and his accident, paralysis or suicide decision; it is all about Lou, seemingly created to showcase Emilia Clarke’s smile and ‘bubbly’ persona, reflected in a choice of clothes which seem to have been taken from my 1980s wardrobe, and the entire shoe range sold by Irregular choice. Admittedly, the shoes were the only thing I liked about the film but the brand also seemed to be a metaphor for her taste in men, Will in particular. Who would choose a disabled man? Well me for one…

Suicide is rarely discussed in the film, though we might make links between Will’s obdurate, miserable personality (a tired old trope for disabled men) and his wish to die. Anyway, Lou overhears his parents arguing about Will’s suicide plans which she shares only with her sister, Katrina. We hear little more of this until a romantic scene towards the end of the film where Will begins to open up; she anticipates what he has to say and tells him she has known for some time. By now her love has redeemed him (another old trope) and, as the acquiescent person he has become, he is not angry or shocked at her failure to communicate with him. Neither is he concerned about her admission that she has being planning lots of life-affirming events to change his mind. He has warmed to, and accepted, her joyful Pollyanna-ish philosophies.

Lou is characterised by an irrepressibly cheerful demeanour and lust for life. Even though she comes to learn more about disabled people’s desire for autonomy, she begins to advocate for him with others and rejects his refusal to budge on the issue of his suicide, making a distressed and angry exit from his life. By this time, we are firmly on her side – after all, we have seen much more of her gentle, heroic ‘personality’. This is established right from the first shots of her, where she is depicted showing TLC to old people, telling them that the calories in bakery items will be fewer if they eat them standing up. This is an early reference to fitness and the crucial importance of standing and mobility, seen also in Will’s sense of physical loss juxtaposed with Lou’s triathlete (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend’s continuing athleticism.

As someone who anticipated little social mobility from childhood, resigning myself to the type of low paid jobs that Lou was doing, I felt much discomfort about the portrayal of privilege, and the caricature of white working class lives. This film is at its most pernicious in supporting damaging ideas of how disabled people should be living. It contains disturbing Randian subtexts on class, way too many to analyse here. It is safe to say this film is the love-child of the worst ‘disability film’ you’ve ever seen, Pygmalion, and Downton Abbey, complete with the romance of the lord of the manor having his pick of the poor wenches. The only twist is that Lou is the Randian hero, with her calm but uncompromising stand on what is good for Will, and themes of self-sacrifice, repeatedly.

Ayn Rand’s idea of the ‘moocher’, as someone who is unable to create value themselves and is therefore parasitical on the morally superior people who generate wealth, lies at the heart of this story, from Will’s fall from his previous high status to economic inactivity to Lou’s family, who are dependent on her – easily deemed ‘useless eaters’. A key scene for me in establishing her moral worth was Lou going immediately to the job centre to get this (high paid) job after she was laid off, a conceit perhaps exposed in Will later bestowing a job on her father. Perhaps most of the comedy to be wrought from this unfunny film is to name him Will – a double entendre reflecting philosophies of rationalism and individualism, and his decision/sacrifice to leave much of his wealth to Lou in order that she can escape from an unheroic life he deems ‘duller than his’.

There are no arguments for or against suicide here. Acquired impairments and ‘biographical disruptions’ should be taken seriously in films; I know that sudden changes in identity can be agonising, especially when all you knew before was ableist privilege, and have experienced no other way of thinking about disabled bodies or a disabling society. One disabled person I spoke to said she loved the book because it suggested romantic love was possible after such experiences. Sadly, it is exactly this type of story which induces despair in the first place, and the fear that we have no place of value in society to make life worth living.